Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Getting Started

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a long-standing problem that is too often diminished or overlooked. With the rise of powerful anti-gender-based violence and harassment movements like #MeToo and #LifeinLeggings, among others, there has been greater awareness raised on the magnitude of this problem internationally and increased efforts to end it. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace is largely understood to be a consequence of gender inequality. While women are not the only targets of sexual harassment in the workplace, they are disproportionately impacted by the issue. Vulnerability to experiencing sexual harassment also increases based on intersecting individual characteristics and the characteristics of certain work environments. This includes women working in politics.

Eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace requires both legal and cultural change. This toolkit seeks to support parliamentarians in advancing both, with an underlying goal of contributing to greater gender equality in the world of work and society more broadly. 

Though sexual harassment can be experienced in any setting, this toolkit focuses specifically on sexual harassment in the workplace. 

By proceeding through the modules below, you will learn about:

  1. The components of a definition for sexual harassment in the workplace and other critical considerations for developing effective legislative frameworks and protections
  2. The role of cultural change in eliminating sexual harassment and other manifestations of gender inequality, and strategies for advancing this progress
  3. How sexual harassment in the workplace affects parliaments and women in politics, and the need for a focused response to the issue in this realm
  4. International frameworks and tools to support national action on sexual harassment in the workplace

Getting Started

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a long-standing problem that is too often diminished or overlooked. With the rise of powerful anti-gender-based violence and harassment movements like #MeToo and #LifeinLeggings, among others, there has been greater awareness raised on the magnitude of this problem internationally and increased efforts to end it. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace is largely understood to be a consequence of gender inequality. While women are not the only targets of sexual harassment in the workplace, they are disproportionately impacted by the issue. Vulnerability to experiencing sexual harassment also increases based on intersecting individual characteristics and the characteristics of certain work environments. This includes women working in politics.

Eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace requires both legal and cultural change. This toolkit seeks to support parliamentarians in advancing both, with an underlying goal of contributing to greater gender equality in the world of work and society more broadly. 

Though sexual harassment can be experienced in any setting, this toolkit focuses specifically on sexual harassment in the workplace. 

By proceeding through the modules below, you will learn about:

  1. The components of a definition for sexual harassment in the workplace and other critical considerations for developing effective legislative frameworks and protections
  2. The role of cultural change in eliminating sexual harassment and other manifestations of gender inequality, and strategies for advancing this progress
  3. How sexual harassment in the workplace affects parliaments and women in politics, and the need for a focused response to the issue in this realm
  4. International frameworks and tools to support national action on sexual harassment in the workplace

Did You Know?

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Convention on Violence and Harassment (Convention 190) and related recommendations in June 2019, marking the first time these issues are covered in international labour standards. Read this article for a summary of key information related to the Convention. 

Establishing an appropriate definition for sexual harassment in the workplace is the first step to raising awareness about unacceptable behaviour and being able to respond to the issue effectively. Clarifying what sexual harassment is by formally naming the related behaviours as such can help to call attention to their problematic nature and provide support for the target of sexual harassment by breaking down the perception that this is a “normal” part of work. 

Such definitional work is, of course, particularly important in legislation, as this will serve as the basis for bringing forward, investigating, and responding to claims. A narrow or unclear definition could mean that there is limited or no recourse for some form of sexual harassment. It could also create uncertainty for employees in understanding what behaviour is unacceptable, why, and the likely repercussions, leaving some individuals without necessary protections. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace is often defined within the broader categories of “violence and harassment in the workplace” and “gender-based violence and harassment.” Though the concept of sexual harassment is difficult to encapsulate in a single definition, some commonalities emerge across definitions utilised by international and national actors

Sexual harassment can be any kind of action – including jokes, gestures, statements, touching, online communications, among others – that:

  1. is unwelcome by the recipient; 
  2. causes them harm, offense, or loss of dignity; and 
  3. is of a sexual, sex- or gender-based nature

There are two common inclusions in sexual harassment definitions that can actually serve to limit protections and should be carefully considered: that an act must be repeated to be considered sexual harassment, and that the victim verbally declare a lack of consent to the action.  

In legal understandings on sexual harassment in the workplace, there are normally two specific categories: hostile working environment and quid pro quo. Sexual harassment can also occur not just in a person’s workplace but more broadly in their “world of work,” as explained by the ILO. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace can be perpetrated by or directed towards individuals of any gender and can occur in vertical and horizontal power structures. However, most victims of sexual harassment are women, which is a result of persistent gender inequalities in the world of work that are due to unequal gender relations in society more broadly. 

Due to heightened power disparities, certain groups of women are particularly vulnerable to experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, such as: migrant women workers; women who work in non-standard or informal employment; women working in isolation or remote locations (in a household or a field); and women who work with the public (particularly in health and education settings) or in customer service (source). Applying the lens of intersectionality is therefore important in this regard. While it is generally considered good practice for definitions of sexual harassment to be gender neutral to ensure that everyone benefits from protections, they must also recognise the role of gender and power in incidences of sexual harassment, and that certain groups may require additional attention and protection. 

Sexual harassment is a human rights violation and its occurrence in the workplace is a form of discrimination as well as an affront to the right to decent work. That women are the primary victims of sexual harassment is both a consequence of and contributor to the workplace and economic inequality they experience. The issue affects the health and security, economic independence, and quality of life of those affected, and produces negative ripple effects across workplaces, the economy, and society at large. 

The issue has long been included in international agreements on gender equality and anti-discrimination that have been adopted by national governments across the Caribbean. National legal frameworks across the region also feature protections against sexual harassment in the workplace to varying degrees. Despite these advances, social movements like #MeToo and #LifeinLeggings have illustrated the continued prevalence and harms of sexual harassment and related offences. 

While sexual harassment in the workplace is understood to be a widespread and insidious problem globally, the lack of data collection on the issue and under-reporting mean that its true prevalence is unknown. Though Caribbean-specific data on workplace settings remains limited, recent national reports on women’s health published through partnerships between national statistical offices and regional agencies have provided new insight on experiences with sexual harassment:

  • The Jamaica report revealed that 1 in 4 women (24%) surveyed reported being sexually harassed during their lifetime, with 13% reporting such an experience in the year prior to their interview. (source)
  • In Trinidad and Tobago, 13% of women surveyed reported experiencing non-partner sexual harassment, with the highest prevalence being in the form of electronic messages. (source)
  • Data from Suriname revealed that sexual harassment prevalence for women surveyed was 25%, with higher percentages for younger women aged 15-19 (37%). (source)
  • In the case of Guyana, 17% of the women who responded to the survey reported having experienced sexual harassment, making it the common form of non-partner sexual violence experienced by respondents. (source)
  • The reports also indicate that, for each of these countries, the respondents’ age, geographic location, and educational attainment, among other characteristics, all impacted their likelihood of having been sexually harassed in their lifetime, which affirms the importance of applying an intersectional lens in studying prevalence and developing responses.

Anecdotal evidence and studies referenced by other Caribbean countries in their national reporting on CEDAW and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action reveals that sexual harassment is a similarly frequent occurrence, largely against women and primarily in the workplace – in both the public and private sectors. Further, it is reported in many countries that individuals are unaware of legal protections in place.  The prevalence of the issue, the active social mobilisations to resist it, and upcoming milestone anniversaries for international frameworks related to women’s rights and gender equality all create a renewed mandate for action to address workplace sexual harassment. Parliamentarians’ efforts are particularly essential in this response given their roles as citizen representatives, decision-makers, public figures, and key actors in providing oversight to the executive.

The prevalence of the issue, the active social mobilisations to resist it, and upcoming milestone anniversaries for international frameworks related to women’s rights and gender equality all create a renewed mandate for action to address workplace sexual harassment. Parliamentarians’ efforts are particularly essential in this response given their roles as citizen representatives, decision-makers, public figures, and key actors in providing oversight to the executive. 

Developing, revising, and implementing effective legislation on preventing and addressing sexual harassment in the workplace is a unique and crucial contribution that parliamentarians can make in advancing responses to the issue. Having such legislation in place can serve several important purposes: 

  • Names and raises awareness on the issue
  • Creates clear responsibilities for employers in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Provides avenues for victims to file complaints and seek redress 
  • Establishes the roles of various actors’ in responding to sexual harassment in the workplace  

The specific ways in which sexual harassment is addressed in legislation vary around the world. Most commonly, sexual harassment in the workplace is covered in a separate statute specifically on the problem or as part of laws governing one or more of the following areas: labour, occupational health and safety, anti-discrimination, or anti-violence. Many countries provide protections through multiple areas, including criminal law, to prevent gaps in coverage and provide victims with options for response mechanisms. Currently, five countries in the English-speaking Caribbean have legal frameworks in place on sexual harassment in the workplace. These range in approach as is the case globally, with two having stand-alone legislation, one explicitly protecting against sexual harassment within anti-discrimination legislation, and two making sexual harassment a crime. 

In another Caribbean country, where specific protections do not exist, legislation against sex discrimination has been successfully used to protect individuals who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Wrongful dismissal and workplace health and safety legislation can also be utilised for these purposes. The ability to make use of such legislation can be beneficial for workers, but it limits the reliability and comprehensiveness of protections when compared to those provided by issue-specific legislation. The public’s need to make use of such protections in this way can be an entry point for parliamentary advocacy to pass specific laws. 

In advocating for new or enhanced legislation to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace, parliamentarians can draw upon other national policies for support as well, including national gender policies and strategies or action plans to address gender-based violence. National gender machineries, anti-discrimination bodies, and civil society organisations or movements that work on related issues are also strategic partners to involve in preparing and socialising legislative initiatives. 

In addition to the international agreements referenced in the previous section, further support can come from tools available at the regional and international levels: IMPACT Justice has created a model sexual harassment bill building on previous CARICOM draft legislation, and the ILO recently adopted a convention and recommendations on the issue. 

Once a legislative framework is in place, it is critical to undertake continuous monitoring and evaluation to ensure its effective implementation. Implementation efforts should also include widespread socialisation of the legislation to ensure that the public is aware of the support mechanisms available, including directly in workplaces. Training will also be necessary for employers and service providers on the legislation’s provisions so that they can better fulfill their prevention and response obligations.

Gender inequality and harmful stereotypes about gender and sexuality are underlying causes of sexual harassment. Workplaces and leadership positions continue to be perceived as men’s domain by some, and the progressive breakdown of barriers to women’s labour force participation has come with unintended consequences, including sexual harassment, as power dynamics are rearranged. The problem therefore cannot be eradicated without complementary, focused efforts to eliminate these deeper root issues. Broader education and socialisation of gender equality concepts is necessary to promote cultural change in workplaces and across society; these should centre on respect, diversity, and enthusiastic consent as core values. 

Legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace can play a role in encouraging the required initiatives to promote cultural transformation. Its very existence can serve as a deterrent to sexual harassment by reaffirming and raising awareness on the harm of related behaviours. Legislation can also prompt the adoption of specific prevention mechanisms by various actors and in different settings. This can include creating a mandate for responsible entities to introduce public campaigns on sexual harassment in the workplace, the inclusion of gender equality content in school curricula, providing support for NGOs that advocate on gender equality and anti-violence at the community level, and the creation of practical resources to support workplaces in cultivating more inclusive environments. Further, workplaces can be tasked with mandating prevention-centred training for staff – which is the most effective training method when delivered regularly (source) – and implementing their own campaigns to identify and visibilise the harms of sexual harassment.

Everyone must be actively involved in the effort for culture to change. This means not only treating all individuals with equal respect, but also holding one another accountable and intervening as possible in instances where sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination are occurring. As parliamentarians and influential figures, you can further encourage this transformation by modelling this behaviour in your own interactions and places of work, as well as advocating for its importance in public statements.

While national parliaments are critical sites for encouraging transformation in workplaces across the country, it is also important to remember that parliaments are workplaces themselves and must be included as part of this anti-sexual harassment work. A number of factors specific to parliaments can even create greater risk of experiencing sexual harassment for parliamentarians and staff alike, including the heightened power dynamics, politicised decision-making, underrepresentation of women and marginalised groups, irregular working hours, and the fact that job performance so directly impacts future job security by influencing possibilities of re-election. 

Research has indicated that women in politics are among the groups more vulnerable to sexual harassment (source), which falls within the broader scope of the gender-based political harassment and violence and becomes a reality for many women as soon as they demonstrate an interest in public engagement. When they campaign, for example, women are at risk of experiencing sexual harassment as they seek to obtain support from constituents and prospective donors, and they must navigate gendered and other forms of power dynamics across these situations. Women active in public life are often subjected to attacks – including online – and other actions that are perpetrated in an intentional attempt to silence or undermine them in their roles. This reflects sustained misconceptions of the political realm as a masculine domain due to women’s historical exclusion from related spaces; it also contributes substantially to women’s continued under-representation. Knowledge of these dangerous potential side effects of political participation leads many women to refrain from putting their names forward for election.

Once women reach the legislature, this discrimination and harassment continues to be prevalent. A global study conducted by IPU with women parliamentarians from around the world found that respondents considered sexual harassment to be a common practice in parliament and that 20% had themselves been sexually harassed during their term. The perceived normalcy of acts of sexual and gender-based harassment against women parliamentarians, especially those that are subtle or ingrained in tradition, as well as against others employed in parliament, can further contribute to deterring women’s political participation. The majority of respondents to the IPU survey indicated that they believed that this deterrence was the goal of the harassment perpetrated against them. Addressing sexual harassment in the parliament as a workplace then becomes part of creating supportive conditions for more inclusive, and therefore stronger, democracies. 

There are specific actions that you as parliamentarians can champion within your legislatures to strengthen sexual harassment prevention and response mechanisms, in addition to tailoring those referenced elsewhere in this toolkit for your particular working environment. Parliaments of the region are increasingly adopting internal protocols or codes of conduct against sexual harassment and reforming legislation that addresses public sector employment discrimination to include protections for parliamentary staff. Some countries have even adopted specific legislation on preventing gender-based political harassment and violence that references sexual harassment. Advocating for gender equality training and additional gender-sensitive reforms in parliament are other initiatives that can foster respect and inclusion.

In Numbers

COUNTRIES IN THE ANGLOPHONE CARIBBEAN WITH LEGAL FRAMEWORKS IN PLACE THAT SPECIFICALLY ADDRESS SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE

WOMEN IN JAMAICA WHO REPORT HAVING EXPERIENCED SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THEIR LIFETIME

WOMEN PARLIAMENTARIANS SURVEYED BY THE IPU WHO REPORTED EXPERIENCING SEXUAL HARASSMENT DURING THEIR LEGISLATIVE TERM

Good Practices

The good practices that follow have been shared by parliamentarians and other stakeholders. They describe techniques for engaging men in gender equality initiatives.

 

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Daniel Sumalavia, Inter-American Task Force on Women’s Leadership
United States
Virtual courses and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) of the CIM/OAS
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Arthur Holder, Speaker of the House of Assembly of Barbados
Barbados
The procedure open to victims for the lodging of complaints as per the Barbados model

Check Yourself

Revisit the key information in this toolkit with a short quiz. These questions are intended for personal knowledge review and responses are anonymous.