Sexual harassment

When work becomes a sexual battleground

To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, which focuses on ‘violence against women’, the ILO is highlighting the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace – an often subtle but disturbing form of aggression.

Feature | 06 March 2013

GENEVA (ILO News) - Sisandra, 28, understands all too well the impact of sexual harassment in the workplace.

As a telecommunications technician in Durban, South Africa, she works in a male-dominated environment.

“My executive manager came to the office and asked for my number and I gave it to him. I did not ask him why he wanted my number as he is a senior person and respected by all in the company because of his position. He then started touching my breast and private parts.”

“I started feeling very uncomfortable and stopped him. I then walked out of the office and told him that I was going to report this to my supervisor. I felt violated and scared. Even though I said I was going to report this, I felt I could not because I thought I could easily lose my job if I told,” she recalls.

Sisandra’s experience is not uncommon. According to UN figures, between 40 and 50 per cent of women in the European Union experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact, verbal suggestions or other forms of sexual harassment at their workplace; in Asia-Pacific countries it is 30 to 40 per cent.

In Australia, according to the country’s Human Rights Commission, 25 per cent of women have been sexually harassed in the workplace. Men can also be victims of workplace sexual harassment but this is much less common.
I felt violated and scared. Even though I said I was going to report this, I felt I could not because I thought I could easily lose my job if I told."


“Sexual harassment and other forms of harassment and abuse – physical, verbal or psychological – bullying, mobbing, work-related stress and violence affect all professions and sectors and both women and men,” says Jane Hodges, ILO Director of the Bureau for Gender Equality.

“However, there is still no explicit international human rights treaty prohibition of violence against women and the issue remains poorly-defined and understood under international human rights law.”

As in Sisandra’s case, a major problem is that many women do not report harassment for fear of losing their jobs. The cost for workers, says Hodges, is heightened stress, loss of motivation and increased risk of accidents at work:

“Workplace violence and harassment present a significant barrier to women accessing and progressing through the labour market. It erodes decent working conditions.”

It is also costly for business: “This is a very important issue for employers. Harassment in the workplace leads to absenteeism, increased turnover and lower job performance and productivity,” explains Deborah France-Massin, Director of ACTEMP, the Bureau for Employers Activities at the ILO.”

Beyond the ILO, many employers are also concerned: “Violence in the world of work is a human rights issue. An appropriate approach towards eliminating violence at work implies targeting the root causes of discriminatory practices and being cognizant of their many different regional, cultural and social contexts,” says Brent Wilton, Secretary-General of the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), which represents more than 150 business and employers federations around the world.

Tackling sexual harassment

Among ILO efforts to tackle such violence in the workplace, are two projects in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The ILO has also partnered with other agencies in a number of programmes in Brazil, Angola, South Africa, India and China.

ILO experts, working with trade unions and employers, have helped draft guides and codes of conduct on preventing sexual harassment in several countries, including China and Viet Nam.

It’s a human rights issue, as well as a health, education and socio-economic problem.
Some unions have also included clauses on sexual harassment in collective agreements and deal with complaints through established grievance and disciplinary procedures, explains Dan Cunniah, Director of ACTRAV, the Bureau for Workers’ Activities at the ILO:

“ACTRAV considers sexual harassment as a form of violence at work. Let us all repudiate sexual harassment and remove it from the workplace now to safeguard the dignity and equality of the workers.”

ILO researchers are also tracking the global incidence of violence at work, while governments are being helped to draft and implement new laws.

In Viet Nam, for instance, the ILO advised on a new Labour Code, to come into force in May 2013, which for the first time prohibits sexual harassment in workplaces.

Part of the challenge is changing attitudes. Many people trivialise the issue, dismissing it as “just a bit of fun”. But, says Jane Hodges, sexual harassment is damaging on many levels:

“It’s a human rights issue, as well as a health, education and socio-economic problem. Workplace violence is a hidden problem, but with very tangible consequences.”

Sexual harassment is:
  • Any physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature and other conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of women and  men, which is unwelcome, unreasonable and offensive to the recipient.
  • Where a person’s rejection of, or submission to, such conduct is used explicitly or implicitly as a basis for a decision which affects that person’s job.
  • Conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment for the recipient.



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