Sexual Harassment in Workplaces Essay

In 1981, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission added sexual harassment to its list of work-related discriminations prohibited by Title VII. Since then, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, South Africa, Australia, and Japan have adopted similar prohibitions. The conceptualization of the harm caused and the severity of punishment varies across nations. In the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, for example, sexual harassment is a civil liberty violation and defined as unwanted sexual attention that becomes a condition of employment. In 2002, a European Parliament resolution cast sexual harassment as a human rights issue and as sexist behavior that undermines a worker’s right to dignity.

Before 1981, a sexual harassment victim’s only legal recourse was to file either tort or criminal charges. As a result, only the most egregious cases— for example, rape or assault—were ever heard in court. Implementation of government agency complaint processes added civil litigation and government mediation to the recourse options. More than 30 years of case law codifies the behaviors for which employers are legally liable. In most cases, liable parties must pay compensatory damages. In the United States, juries have added up to 30 million dollars in punitive damages.

Legally speaking, there are four types of sexual harassment: (1) quid pro quo, (2) paramour favoritism, (3) hostile environment harassment, and (4) retaliation. The first, quid pro quo, refers to the exchange of sexual favors for hire, promotion, or protection from dismissal or demotion. The most common form is uninvited requests for dates or sexual liaison. Paramour favoritism occurs when a supervisor and subordinate engage in a sexual relationship in such a way that disparately impacts other coworkers. Coworkers do more work to accommodate the relationship or are denied benefits because of it. Hostile environments are created by sexualized behaviors that make an employee feel unwelcome because of his or her gender or sexuality. Hostile environments are not the result of one person’s misbehavior, but rather are the products of a group effort to demean the victims and those like them. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court broadened what constitutes retaliation for resisting sexual harassment. Before their ruling, only evidence of dismissal or demotion counted. Now, any undesirable change in shift, workstation, or duty constitutes retaliation.

Criminologists note at least four similarities between the dynamics of sexual harassment and the violence of crimes against women (e.g., battering, rape, incest, stalking, and sexual slavery). Most notably, sexual harassment is a crime overwhelmingly committed by men against women. National surveys estimate that in any given year 34% to 60% of working women experience sexual harassment. In contrast, 7% to 19% of sexual harassment victims are men, and nearly 90% of sexual harassers (of either women or men) are also men. Second, fear of retaliation and the prospect of being blamed or turned away ensure witnesses’ silence and discourage efforts to seek help. Third, gender ideology normalizes the forced imposition of sexual attention upon women as natural and therefore, unavoidable. As a result, sexual harassment is often excused as an unfortunate byproduct of men’s greater need for sex or biological drive to reproduce.

Finally, sexual harassment limits opportunities of all women, even those without direct experience of it. The desire to avoid sexual harassment and the need to escape it affect decisions to leave a job or accept a job as well as to request a promotion or to transfer.

Sociological studies show that group dominance greatly determines a woman’s risk. Women who work in male-dominated settings (75% or more of the employees are men) are at greatest risk of hostile and retaliatory harassment. Women employed in female dominated professions (e.g., caregiving and support services) are at greater risk of quid pro quo and paramour favoritism. Members of racial minorities are more likely to experience a conflation of racial and sexual harassment. In the United States, for example, Black women have felt doubly harassed when White men invoke images of female slaves or girl gangbangers.

Psychologists find negative connections between sexual harassment and life dissatisfaction, self-esteem, trust of authorities, and intimacy with men. Therapists note association with stress disorders such as insomnia, depression, and loss of appetite. Finally, previous experience of other forms of interpersonal violence can heighten feelings of violation.

The primary distinction between sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women is that governments and the courts have officially recognized it as a form of gender inequality for which social institutions are responsible. Although the symbolism of official condemnation of sexual harassment is significant, the practical impact on the everyday lives of workers has been unremarkable. Despite this shift in legal ideology, surveys show that rates of sexual harassment remain remarkably stable and satisfaction with reporting and complaint procedures low. Critics warn that because the law is a double-edged sword, it is only a matter of time before sexual harassment policy is turned against the very people it seeks to liberate. In Germany, for example, accused harassers challenging their dismissals filed the majority of sexual harassment cases in 2002. Optimists, however, view the disjuncture between ideology and practice as merely a lag and argue that given sufficient time workplace mores will eventually catch up with current shifts in legal ideology.


  1. Gruber, J., & Morgan, P. (2005). In the company of men: Male dominance and sexual harassment. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
  2. McKinnon, C. (1979). The sexual harassment of working women. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. Stanley, L., & Wise, S. (1987). Georgy Porgy: Sexual harassment in everyday life. London: Pandora.
  4. Zippel, K. (2006). Politics of sexual harassment: A comparative study of the United States, the European Union and Germany. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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