Understanding sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on gender, which is not linked as much with the biological differences between women and men, but rather with social roles attributed to them and perceptions of male and female sexuality in society. Sexual harassment is a manifestation of unequal power relations, and, therefore, has nothing to do with the experience of sexual pleasure from this action, but the enforcement and recognition of power in the workplace. Harassers usually hold high positions and use decision-making authority or other aspects that affect the careers of employees, or want to exercise authority or control over the victim. On the other hand, victims do not have much decision-making power, they lack self-confidence, their position at work is vulnerable or insecure, or they are used “to suffer in silence”.

Perceptions regarding what constitutes sexual harassment is not the same for all societies/cultures. It depends on how men and women interact within certain societies, the existence of stereotypes, the socio-economic hierarchy that may exist in private and public life, as well as concepts and established hierarchies at work.

For these reasons it is impossible to develop a comprehensive list of harassing behaviors which one would need to prevent. However, some actions can be identified without doubt as sexual harassment. Such are, for example, kissing, unwanted caresses and/or physical contact, verbal harassment and others. There are numerous forms of verbal, non-verbal communication and physical contact which cannot be clearly classified as sexual harassment. This can vary depending on social and cultural practices, or the contextual aspects of the situation in which they arise. Thus, in some cultures, a kiss on the cheek when greeting someone is seen as a normal behavior, whereas in other cultures it is considered as flirtation. What is acceptable in certain jobs, such as posters with suggestive sexual meaning, might not be tolerated elsewhere.

Although, as women, men as well, can fall prey to sexual harassment, qualitative and quantitative research in various societies shows that women are much more likely to become victims, while men are most often the harassers.
In fact, with the increasing number of employed women over the past three decades in the world, even the vulnerability and unwanted attention at work has increased. Today the issue of sexual harassment in the work place is seen as a serious one, causing professional risk and violation of human rights. The International Labour Organization considers it as a violation of the fundamental rights of employees, as a threat to health and safety, as discrimination, and as an unacceptable working condition and a form of violence, usually against women.

Besides the harmful effects on victims, sexual harassment carries consequences for the employing organization or company as well. Sexual harassment causes tension at work, and it can hamper teamwork, damage results and encourage absences at work, which ultimately lead to a reduction of productivity. Therefore, public administration and private employers are at risk of losing the best employees and creating a negative image if victims decide to make their plight known.
Finally, there is also a financial risk related to sexual harassment, because of potential lawsuits and payment of compensations and fines.

Adapted from the report "Perceptions of Civil Servants in Kosovo regarding Sexual Harassment"
Kosovar Center for Gender Studies
Prishtina, 2015