Brave whistleblower speaks out on 'horrendous' experience exposing sexual harassment at fire service

  • Shirley has chosen to waive her anonymity in a bid to raise awareness.

A cleaner who was sexually harassed while working for South Wales Fire and Rescue Service has described the experience as "horrendous" and has welcomed the findings of a review into the service's culture.

A report published on Wednesday revealed damning claims from women within the service - exposing how widespread the issue is.

The review was triggered after an ITV News investigation in December 2022 which found evidence that two firemen had been allowed to keep their jobs despite sexually harassing and abusing women.

Shirley, who has chosen to waive her anonymity, said: "It’s been horrendous to be quite honest."

She first brought her concerns to South Wales Fire and Rescue Service in May 2020 and was interviewed as part of an internal investigation.

The fireman was later disciplined and demoted, moving to another station within the force’s remit.

Shirley felt let down by the whole process and was relieved the review finally revealed the extent of the problem.

She said: "To think I had to go through another traumatic experience because no one would take notice of me in the first place.

"I’ve done it now and I can smile a little bit now and get on with my life hopefully."

She added: "I’ve got memories of things that have gone on but hopefully, they will fade through the years, like other bad things that have happened to me."

Sexual harassment in the workplace is "incredibly prevalent" in Wales according to Stephanie Grimshaw from Welsh Women's Aid.

The charity published a report in 2021 looking at the issue and found four in five women experience sexual harassment while doing their job.

  • Stephanie Grimshaw from Welsh Women's Aid appeared on ITV Wales at Six with presenter Carl Edwards.

Ms Grimshaw said she wasn't surprised by the findings of Fenella Morris KC's review, adding: "I was disappointed to hear South Wales Fire's Chief Fire Officer Huw Jakeway say that 'the change starts today', whereas it should have started as soon as he became aware of the problems which was in December 2022."

In the report, several women shared their own experiences or said they had witnessed the abuse of others.

"It's women's everyday reality," said Ms Grimshaw.

"This kind of banter and trivialisation of sexual harassment and domestic abuse is happening everywhere and especially in a service, that protects not just women but everybody in Wales and they are part of the perpetrators as well. It just shouldn't be acceptable."

Ms Grimshaw wants all companies and organisations "to do better" acknowledging most have policies around inclusivity, fairness and what is right.

She said: "It should be important to every organisation but if we are going to say this is going to fix this issue then we are saying it is a woman's problem to fix.

"We are saying by increasing women in the organisation we are going to deal with sexual harassment when the men already in the organisation should already be making it a safer space to work.

"We shouldn't have to wait for inclusivity and diversity to increase in these organisations."

Despite statistics showing that sexual harassment and abuse is a big problem in the workplace, Ms Grimshaw is "hopeful" that it can be stamped out.

Reporting rates for public sexual harassment are low, Welsh Women's Aid says that's largely due to a lack of trust in the systems that are meant to protect women.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for UN Women report found the main reasons for not reporting were:

Ms Grimshaw said: "There is a lot of hope, but I think with that hope needs to come at the centre of it that we make sure we are doing trauma-informed practices wherever we go and we don't trivialise it to a woman's problem.

"It's everyone's problem whether it's the leader of the organisation, whether it's your union rep or whether it's an admin staff, every member of the organisation needs to take responsibility for out-rooting misogynistic behaviour everywhere."

The Welsh Government funds the Live Fear Free Helpline, run by Welsh Women’s Aid - between January 2021 and June 2022, it reported a 229% increase in the number of survivors contacting the helpline about stalking and harassment.

Deputy Minister for Social Partnership Hannah Blythyn told ITV Wales the report into the culture at South Wales Fire and Rescue "makes very difficult and distressing reading for all concerned".

She added that the service is seeking an "urgent meeting" with the fire authority to discuss its findings.

Ms Blythyn acknowledged how difficult it must have been for those involved to speak out but praised their courage saying "it is vital in tackling problems like this".

  • Minister for Social Partnership Hannah Blythyn says she will be meeting the Fire and Rescue Authority "urgently".

She said: "I've been consistent in challenging the Fire and Rescue Authority to ensure that there is a thorough, robust, independent, comprehensive review of the allegations that came to light. 

"We need to consider this report in detail and meet with the Fire and Rescue Authority."

She added: "Ordinarily we would expect Fire Authority Members to show leadership and hold management to account, and there may be a case in the future where that doesn't happen for the government to become involved. 

"I will be meeting the Fire and Rescue Authority urgently following the publication of this report and then we will take the necessary steps forward to move on the recommendations to ensure that we support people who work in those services and provide the services in our communities in the future as well."

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