Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful sex discrimination. This includes unwanted verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature that occurs in the workplace or in an educational setting under certain conditions.

These behaviours are illegal if it creates an environment that is hostile or intimidating, if it interferes with a person’s work or school performance, or if acceptance of the harasser’s behaviour is made a condition of employment or academic achievement.

A number of countries—the USA, Japan, Canada, Australia, and several European nations—have laws that prohibit sexual harassment.

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Rates of harassment

Surveys provide widely divergent statistics, indicating that 30 to 70 per cent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at some point in their lives.

This wide range may be due to the fact that perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment differ among individuals and among men and women. That is, what some people might consider acceptable behaviour, others might think of as sexual harassment.

Research indicates that sexual harassment is widespread among children and teenagers.

In most cases, girls experience higher rates of sexual harassment than boys. Seventy-six per cent of girls and fifty-six per cent of boys are reported to have been the target of sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks. This was the most common form of sexual harassment in the schools surveyed.

Sixty-five per cent of girls and forty-two per cent of boys reported that they had been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual manner.

Forty-two per cent of girls and thirty-four per cent of boys reported that they had been the subject of sexual rumours.

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Effects of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment often has adverse effects on the victim’s performance at work or school. Both the quantity and the quality of work may suffer, as well as the employee’s or student’s morale, attendance, and ability to work with others.


Sexual harassment can cause employers losses in productivity and can lead to greater employee turnover and use of sick leave.

It can also harm the victim’s psychological and physical well-being. One study found 96 per cent of sexual harassment victims suffer from emotional distress, and 35 per cent experience physical, stress-related problems.

Typical symptoms include anger, fear, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, depression, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, nausea, fatigue, headaches, and weight gain or loss.

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Sexual harassment can also have indirect effects on society. Many feminist scholars consider sexual harassment to be a form of oppression that men use to maintain male-dominated power structures.

These scholars note that sexual harassment in school limits girls’ participation and impairs their academic achievement. Similarly, women in fields of work that men have traditionally occupied—such as the military, law enforcement, and fire fighting—experience higher rates of sexual harassment.

Some researchers assert that regardless of whether harassment is an intentional attempt to oppress girls and women, it contributes to lower achievement by women in society.

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Source: Gregory, David L. “Sexual Harassment.” Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2008.

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