A Global Village
Issue 10 » Gender Economics

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace:

Within the Spectrum of Sexual Violence

Renate van Oosten, Chatham House

The past half century has seen leaps in women’s working rights, aided by policy change, media campaigns and an overall shift in the perception of working women, yet statistics show that sexual harassment, which permeates the lives of many women around the world, is still a pervasive threat in the workplace.

The concept of ‘sexual harassment’ was born from the civil rights movement of the United States in the 1960s1,2. Initially seen as a form of sex discrimination, it was covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, sex, colour, nationality or religion. In the UK it was covered by the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) of 1975.

The recognition of sex discrimination and harassment as a problem was a momentous civil rights victory. However, neither of these acts had any specific definition nor clause on sexual harassment, it was merely considered a form of discrimination, making it a difficult crime to recognize and prosecute1,3. The definition of sexual harassment, and what is encompassed by this term has since then undergone an evolution.

The SDA was expanded in 1986 under pressure from the European Court of Justice to include sexual harassment3; though it wasn’t until 1991 that the European Commission convened a committee on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work, to establish a definition of sexual harassment:


Sexual harassment means unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or the conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of men and women at work. This can include unwelcome physical, verbal and nonverbal conduct. Thus, a range of behaviour may be considered to constitute sexual harassment. It is unacceptable if such conduct is unwanted, unreasonable and offensive to the recipient; a person’s rejection of, or submission to, such conduct on the part of the employers or workers (including superiors or colleagues) is used explicitly or implicitly as a basis for a decision which affects that person’s access to vocational training or employment, continued employment, promotion, salary or any other employment decisions; and/or such conduct creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment.”
Aeberhard-Hodges 19964.

This definition brings sexual harassment beyond the bounds of discrimination (which it is) and sees it as an assault on a persons’ dignity. Most recently, the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) centred its 2013 meeting around ending all types of violence against women, and has recognized that sexual harassment (both in the workplace and in other public spheres) is a form of violence against women.

Most recently, the UN
Commission on the Status of
Women (CSW) centred its 2013
meeting around ending all types
of violence against women,
and has recognized that sexual
harassment (…) is a form of
violence against women

The Spectrum of Sexual Violence
Defining Sexual Harassment as a separate crime from discrimination not only legitimizes it as the aggressive crime that it is, but also allows for legal and structural frameworks to be set up in opposition of sexual harassment. Yet there is still very little universal consensus on what sexual harassment is. Even in countries where there is a definition, and legislation in place, where women are better educated than ever before, receive more degrees and join the work force in larger numbers, sexual harassment remains a ubiquitous problem.

Statistics vary enormously, as it still one of the most underreported crimes. It is thought that anywhere between 30%-50% of women are victims of sexual harassment in the European Union, 1 in 2 in the UK, 1 in 4 in the US workplaces and 34%-78% in the US military. This speaks not just to the structure of the work place, but the entrenched culture of female objectification, which quite often paints women as mere recipients for male desire – views that are reproduced and perpetuated in a work place. Sexual harassment becomes not only a normalized form of social behaviour, but women are taught to accept and even expect this type of behaviour.

Prevention and Change
Combatting such a complex, entrenched problem is a formidable task, but that does not mean that there are not some measures that could alleviate and end the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. A number of reports originating in the US have shown that the internal structure of an organization is important in reducing its incidence. Male dominated jobs tend to show higher rates of this type of violence2 (the tragically classic example being the military). Workplaces with a higher proportion of women – particularly in more managerial positions – report much lower rates of sexual harassment.

More direct measures, such as requiring companies to have a clear policy against sexual violence as well as a transparent procedure to deal with it when it does occur2 should be made a requirement for all organizations. Educational programs within workplaces, based around understanding what constitutes this behaviour, and how to deal with it (as a victim, witness or manager) have also been shown to make a difference in reducing its incidence in the workplace.

It is important to note that recognizing sexual harassment as a crime was the first step, and one which has made a difference in the countries where it has been recognized*. A legal framework acknowledges the right of the (primarily female) victims to dignity and an expectation of peace at work, and allows access to justice when this expectation is not met. This is a human right, and should be a requirement of all countries that have signed the Human Rights Charter.

*Reports suggest that rates of sexual harassment in the workspace are lower now than they were 20 years ago; however since sexual harassment was – and still is – severely underreported, it is difficult to confirm these reports. In the US military reported sexual harassment as well as sexual assaults have actually been increasing5

Renate van Oosten is a recent graduate from University College London, where she got her MSc in Medical Anthropology. She is currently doing an internship at Chatham House.

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[1] MacKinnon, C.A. & Siegel, R.B. (2003) Directions in Sexual Harassment Law. Yale Press. USA.
[2] Fitzgerald, L.F. (1993) ‘Sexual Harassment: Violence Against Women in the Workplace’ American Psychologists; 8 (issue 10): 1070-1076.
[3] Fitzpatrick, B. (1987) ‘The Sex Discrimination Act 1986’ The Modern Law Review; 50 (issue 7): 934-95.
[4] Aeberhard-Hodges (1996) ‘Sexual harassment in employment: Recent judicial and arbitral trends’ International Labour Review; 135 (issue 5): 499-533.
[5] Department of Defense. Sexual Assault Prevention and Response. (2011) ‘Annual Report on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies‘. Academic Program Year 2010-2011.