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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

February 05 2018 - by Carole Houlihan, CLP's Gender and Diversity Specialist

Issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment are in the news on a daily basis and increasingly in public debate and our private conversations.  TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year were The Silence Breakers: The voices that launched a movement - women who spoke out about sexual assault in the workplace.

Steps are being taken to address issues of workplace sexual harassment in the Caribbean, most recently in Barbados.  In October 2017, the Employment Sexual Harassment (Prevention) Bill was approved by the Parliament of Barbados.  The Bill focuses on the protection of employees in both the public sector and private sector from sexual harassment at their workplace. It aims to provide a framework for reporting sexual harassment cases by employees, to establish a procedure for the hearing and determination of matters related to sexual harassment, and a method of resolving cases.

Until the Barbados legislation was passed, only Belize had stand-alone sexual harassment legislation.[1] Saint Lucia, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago provide protection against sexual harassment at work in their anti-discrimination legislation. In these laws, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. In Saint Lucia, modest protection is offered against sexual harassment as a sexual offence. Jamaica has been in discussions about sexual harassment legislation for several years.

The recent attention to the issue has prompted many to really wonder how common is the problem of workplace sexual harassment? Two recent surveys in the U.S. and Canada provide some insights.

The first survey[2] - a collaboration between The New York Times, researchers, and a polling company - was nationally representative of men who work full time. It asked: In the last year at work, have you …

  • Told sexual stories or jokes that some might consider offensive?
  • Made remarks that some might consider sexist or offensive?
  • Displayed, used or distributed materials (like videos or cartoons) that some might consider sexist or suggestive?
  • Made attempts to draw someone into a discussion of sexual matters even though the person did not want to join in?
  • Made gestures or used body language of a sexual nature, which embarrassed or offended someone?
  • Continued to ask someone for dates, drinks or dinner even though he or she said no?
  • Made attempts to establish a romantic sexual relationship with someone despite that person’s efforts to discourage it?
  • Touched someone in a way that made him or her feel uncomfortable?
  • Made uninvited attempts to stroke, fondle or kiss someone? Offered or implied rewards if someone engaged in sexual behavior? Or treated someone badly if he or she didn’t?

 The findings were:

  • About 25 percent of men in the survey said they had told crude jokes or stories and shared inappropriate videos.
  • About 10 percent of men reported actions like touching, making comments about someone’s body and asking colleagues on dates after they’ve said no.
  • Two (2) percent of men said they had pressured people into sexual acts by offering rewards or threatening retaliation.

Many men did not identify harassing behaviors as such, but the survey suggests that, at a minimum, one in 25 men in the average American workplace identifies himself as a harasser. (An additional two in 25 said they did not know whether their actions could be classified in this way.)

The survey concludes that a major difference between those who harass and those who do not is workplace culture. Harassment is especially prevalent among men who say their organization does not have guidelines against harassment, punishment for perpetrators, or who say their managers do not care.

The second survey[3] was a Canadian Press survey of current female Members of Parliament (MP) to find out the extent to which they had been the targets of sexual harassment, assault or misconduct of all kinds, including during their time in elected office.

Of 89 current female MPs, 38 responded to the voluntary survey. Nearly 58 per said they had personally been the target of one or more forms of sexual misconduct while in office, including inappropriate or unwanted remarks, and gestures or text messages of a sexual nature. That includes three (3) MPs who said they were victims of sexual assault and four (4) who said they were the targets of sexual harassment, defined in the survey as insistent and repeated sexual advances.

The issue of sexual harassment is serious and complex. My next blog, Taking Action on Workplace Sexual Harassment: Cautions and Consequences, will look at the some of the challenges of enforcing workplace sexual harassment policies and laws.

What is the situation in your country and organization, Ministry or Department?

As a leader, have you had to address issues of sexual harassment in the workplace? 


[1]  Protection Against Sexual Harassment Act 1996 (Belize).  





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Eltonia Anthony - Reply

The problem is existent within both private and public enterprises in Antigua and Barbuda. While I've had to address the issue from a professional stand point, I have also been the victim of this type of abuse.

I believe that some people are convinced that it is okay to take their personal lives into the workplace, while others abide by the no-sex-at-work rule. Many victims of sexual harassment with whom I spoke, myself included,  tend to be caught off guard by this vicious attack. The lack of ethical standards displayed by the offender tend to throw the unsuspecting for a loop.

However, I find that the lack of a trusted and well established framework has left many victims of sexual harassment to handle issues on their own. Worst case scenario leaves victims to claim constructive dismissal; situation which is not guaranteed to work in their favor. Unfortunately, our society has cracks throughout the pyramid of power, hence victims are left out to dry quite easily.

Carole Houlihan - Reply

Thanks for your comment, Eltonia. 

You raise several important issues, including the impact on individuals. You also note the importance of having a framework  (and processes) to define and address harassment when it occurs. Perhaps most importantly, having a framework  (policy and processes) encourages communication and education for prevention. Discussing the issues openly is perhaps the first step towards equality and understanding of workplace norms and behaviours.