Sexual Harassment Worldwide

Sexual harassment is regarded as a form of sex discrimination as it is related to gender inequality and patriarchy. Sexual harassment is also an organized expression and display of power by some people, which is intended to intimidate the victim.

What is sexual harassment?

The act of sexual harassment, i.e., unwanted and unwelcome sexual conduct has a long history however this behaviour was given a name only in 1970s when women in the US demanded that sexual harassment be recognized as sex-based discrimination.

There are different perceptions among and within societies on what constitutes sexual harassment, however all these definitions cover some basic elements that sexual harassment is an "unwanted, unwelcome and unasked-for behavior (physical, verbal or visual) of sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment".

Sexual harassment is regarded as a form of sex discrimination as it is related to gender inequality and patriarchy. Sexual harassment is also an organized expression and display of power by some people, which is intended to intimidate, coerce or degrade other workers, and has detrimental effects on both workers and employers. Sexual harassment is the violation of fundamental human right of working in just and favorable conditions with dignity (UDHR, Article 23). Sexual harassment is also a health and safety issue as it affects a victim’s right to safe and secure workplace for earning livelihood.

Which behaviors are regarded as sexual harassment?

The European Commission’s Council Resolution on the protection of the dignity of men and women at work, 1990 defines sexual harassment as “the unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on sex, affecting the dignity of women and men at work. This can include unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct”.

A wide range of behaviors is considered as sexual harassment. These are classified as verbal, physical, and non-verbal behaviors:


i        Comments on a worker’s sex, appearance, age, private life, etc.

ii       Sexual comments, stories and jokes (stories about sexual fantasies)

iii      Sexual advances

iv     Repeated invitations for social events

v      Insults based on the sex of the worker

vi     Condescending or paternalistic remarks

vii    Requests for sexual favours, often related to employment benefits (promotion, training opportunity, pay raise, etc)


i        Physical violence/assault (rape/ attempted rape)

ii       Physical contact, e.g. touching, pinching, squeezing, or brushing against someone

iii      Leering or ogling

iv     Making sexually suggestive comments and signals

v      Winking

vi     Unnecessary physical contact and touching

vii    Physical assault

Non-verbal conduct

i        Display of sexually explicit or suggestive material

ii       Sexually-suggestive gestures

iii      Whistling

iv     Sending unwanted e-mails, text messages, posting sexually-explicit jokes on an office intranet

v      The use of job-related threats or rewards to solicit sexual favours

vi     Forcing victims to work unsociable hours

What are different forms/types of sexual harassment?

There are two basic forms of sexual harassment.

Quid Pro Quo (This for that) harassment occurs when sexual favours are made a condition of employment and when a job benefit - such as a wage increase, a promotion, training opportunity, a transfer, a new job or continued employment - is made conditional on the victim’s acceding to demands of the perpetrator to engage in some form of sexual behavior

Hostile Working Environment harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual advances such as verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature (see examples above) unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

The above distinction is used to differentiate between the two types. However, quid pro quo harassment can also be considered as a type of behavior that creates hostile working environment.

How to distinguish whether an act constitutes sexual harassment?

The important elements include “sexual behavior, unwelcomeness of an act, its pervasiveness and severity and it becoming part of a tangible employment action”.  

The essential characteristic of sexual harassment is that the behaviour is unwanted and unwelcome by the recipient/victim. Alleged sexual advances must be considered unwelcome by the recipient and duly communicated (verbally, in writing, or by recipient's actions) to the harasser. However, unwelcome does not mean involuntary. A victim may consent or agree to certain conduct and actively participate in it even though it is offensive and objectionable. A female worker may engage in workplace affair just to get along while still considering the advances as unwelcome. This is usually the case when there is power imbalance in the workplace, as workers have to engage in seemingly consensual relationship with supervisors/employers just to protect their jobs. If it is proved that the victim did not solicit, invite or encouraged the conduct, the case for sexual harassment can be brought.  The individual may have consented to the sexual activity due to perceived or actual pressure from the harasser.

The unwelcome conduct must be either severe or pervasive to be considered sexual harassment. A single incident is considered as sexual harassment only if it is severe and offensive (sexual assault, rape, etc).

A single unwanted request for going out on a social event or sexually suggestive remark is not sexual harassment unless it is repeated so many  number of times that it starts affecting work of an individual worker by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. So, the unwelcome act must be sufficiently patterned, pervasive and repeated a number of times before being labeled as harassment.

To decide whether a conduct is sufficiently pervasive, the perpetrator’s conduct has to be judged form the standpoint of a reasonable person. The usual approach is to ask whether a “reasonable person or reasonable woman” would consider the behavior offensive. As commented by US courts, law cannot be used as a vehicle to vindicate all the petty slights suffered by the hypersensitive. If the so-called offensive conduct does not affect the working environment of a reasonable person/woman, it would not constitute sexual harassment.

How prevalent is the sexual harassment worldwide?

Sexual harassment is termed differently in different countries. In France, the term “droit de cuissage” (the right to thigh) is used to describe the conduct,  while in India the term “eve teasing” has been used to describe sexually offensive behavior. Similarly, in Japan the term “Seku-Hara” has been adopted.

According to the Reuters/Ipsos Poll on Assault and Harassment in the Workplace (2010), nearly 10% of all workers in 22 countries from all continents indicate that have sexually assaulted and harassed at the workplace. The percentage is highest in the India (25% of respondents) and China (18% of respondents).

The United Nation’s In-depth study on all forms of violence against women (2006) indicates that between 40 and 50 per cent of women in the European Union report some form of sexual harassment or unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. Surveys in Asia-Pacific countries indicate that 30 to 40 per cent of women workers report some form of harassment — verbal, physical or sexual. As for the Latin American countries, ILO Research indicates that between 30% and 50% of women workers in the region have suffered some form of sexual harassment, of varying degrees of severity, at some stage in their workplaces.

What causes sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is not only a “women’s issue” rather it is human rights, labour rights and human resource management issue. Harassment of women works as a barrier to women’s entry into the labor market and thus hampers economic growth and increases gender inequality.

As to the causes of sexual harassment, the most common (although misguided) view is that womenprovoke men and ask for these offensive action through their dress and appearance. Men’s natural sex drive also plays a role in that. However, this view is proven wrong when women who are dressed in workplace uniform or who are suitably covered (like Purdah in Muslim countries) are also harassed. However, this misguided view is so deeply entrenched in some communities (even in the developed economies) that the victims of sexual harassment are blamed for the affliction brought upon them. 

However, there is another view that increasing cases of harassment may be due to the fact women are now joining labour force in increasing numbers throughout the world. The global female labour force is 1.3 billion in 2012, – about 39.9 per cent of the total labour force of 3.3 billion. During the past 25 years, women have joined labor force in increasing numbers; a trend, which has consequently helped in reducing poverty and the gender participation gap. The global female Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR) now stands at 51.8% with highest participation in Eastern African countries (WDR: 2013). As more women enter the labour force, they affect the power equation (social, economic and legal) and thus are harassed by male workers in order to protect their so-called power.

What are international conventions on the subject?

The following international conventions/covenants/resolutions are adopted to eliminate sexual harassment from the workplace.

●      Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111)

●      Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 1979 

●      UN Declaration on Violence against Women, 1993, Article 2

●      Beijing Declaration and Plan of Action, 1995

There is no specific mention of sexual harassment in ILO Convention 111 and CEDAW because these were adopted before the awareness on the issue of sexual harassment. Both of these conventions require member states to eliminate gender discrimination by viewing sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination against women in employment.

The UN Declaration considers sexual harassment as a form of gender based violence which constitutes a violation of women’s rights and fundamental freedoms and therefore a breach of CEDAW. The Beijing Declaration, 1995 considers sexual harassment both as a form of gender violence and a barrier to achieve gender equality. It calls on member states, employers, communities to eliminate sexual harassment.

The only international Convention that explicitly prohibits this sexual harassment is the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169). Article 20 prohibits sexual harassment of indigenous and tribal women and men.

Who are the victims of sexual harassment?

 The incidence of sexual harassment is quite high and the following groups of workers are more at the risk of being sexually harassed.

●      Women workers (although male workers are also harassed but by a lesser percentage)

●      young workers

●      single, separated, widowed & divorced

●      women in non-traditional jobs, working with male supervisors

●      casual and informal sector workers

●      temporary, casual, part-time workers

●      domestic workers

●      migrant workers

●      young men

●      gay men

●      members of ethnic or racial minorities

●      people with disabilities

●      men working in female dominated environments (and vice versa)

●      less educated workers

●      educational and training institutions (places with higher incidence of harassment)

Who are the harassers or perpetrators of sexual harassment?

The following types of individuals are usually the perpetrators of sexual harassment at the workplace.

●      Colleagues

●      Supervisors

●      Management

●      Clients/customers and contractors (non-employee)

What are the costs associated with sexual harassment at workplace?

Sexual harassment at workplace creates an intimidating and hostile work environment. The harassment related human and financial costs are quite high as victims commit suicide and organizations witness a drop in productivity. According to a 1988 survey on Sexual Harassment in Fortune 500 companies, it was observed that ignoring problems of sexual harassment can cost a large company up to US$ 6.7 million a year in low productivity, low morale, and employee turnover and absenteeism, not including legal costs. The United States Merit Systems Protection Board estimated that sexual harassment cost the Federal Government around $327 million during the 2-year period April 1992 to April 1994.

 The table below shows various types of costs that individual victims, employers and society has to bear because of sexual harassment of workers.




●     Psychological suffering of workers;

●      Loss of self-esteem;

●      reduced motivation; 

●      loss of productivity; 

●      increased stress, depression;

●      drugs and alcohol abuse;

●      loss of earnings as workers resign;

●     committing suicide


●      loss of productivity and efficiency

●      increase in the workplace accidents 

●      teamwork jeopardized 

●      high turnover rates

●      difficulty in filling the vacancies

●      increased absenteeism

●      Sick leave related costs

●     Settlement cost (if legal action is taken by the victim

  • Loss of productivity of the economy

●      Decreased female labour force participation

●      Rehabilitation costs for the reintegration of victims;

●     Unemployment welfare benefits and retraining;

●      Legal and criminal justice expenses;

●      Women de-motivated to compete for well paid and male dominated jobs


How have states combated with sexual harassment?

According to the UN Study (2006), 90 states have some form of legislative provision against sexual harassment. Of these, 11 States have adopted specific legislation on sexual harassment; 18 States address the issue in anti-discrimination or gender equality legislation; 18 States address sexual harassment in their labour code or employment legislation; 12 States have a combination of provisions in these three areas; and another 31 States have amended their penal code or criminal law to make sexual harassment a specific criminal offence. In addition, two States have developed common law doctrines on sexual harassment.

States have tried to address the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace through different measures. These include:

Law Type

Countries (samples)

Sexual Harassment laws

Belize, Costa Rica, Israel, Pakistan, Philippines

Anti-Discrimination laws

Austria, Australia, Germany, Japan, South Africa, United States of America

Labour law 


Belgium, Canada, France, Netherlands, New Zealand,  Paraguay, Spain, Thailand

Human Rights Law


Canada, Fiji and New Zealand. 


Criminal law


Bangladesh, Costa Rica, Pakistan Spain, Sri Lanka, United Republic of Tanzania, Venezuela


Common Law

India, Trinidad and Tobago