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Violence and harassment in the workplace

Last edited: June 05, 2020

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Violence and harassment against women in the workplace is often an expression of power and control (by co-workers, employers and supervisors, and third parties). It can include a range of overt and covert action, and can be affected by the organization of work and work processes. Research on these dynamics and their negative impact, along with women’s advocacy and increased reporting of violence and harassment, as well as due to legal obligations, has led many workplaces to adopt policies and procedures, often jointly-agreed between employers’ and workers’ representatives.  

Workplaces in certain sectors, jobs or occupations may present higher exposure to violence and harassment, depending on the existence of numerous risk factors and circumstances. For instance, working with third parties – such as clients, customers, patients or users - is a significant risk factor for violence and harassment against women. It is estimated that up to 42 per cent of workers working in direct contact with the public, many of whom are women, experience third-party violence (EPSU et al, 2013). This may take place, for example, in workplaces such as bars and cafés, in places where criminal justice or policing is carried out, in places where money or prescription drugs are handled, where health care, care or education services are provided, and where work is carried out in isolated or mobile locations (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, 2017). Violence and harassment from third parties has also been reported by transport workers, such as bus drivers, ticket collectors, conductors and air stewards (ITF, 2018; ETF 2017).

The composition of the workforce is also an important factor. Often influenced by social and cultural gender norms, there are occupations where women predominate – such as shop assistants, bar and restaurant workers, teachers, nurses and social care workers – and where they face significant exposure to violence and harassment. Unions representing workers in the public sector report that aggression from service users and patients has become commonplace and has even increased significantly in recent years (Public Services International, 2018). In this regard, a lack of resources, equipment, infrastructure and staffing can also contribute to violent and harassing behaviours, particularly where service users may have complex needs that are not being met. In the health sector, austerity measures have led to insufficient resources for staffing and for high-quality services, contributing to an increase in the incidence and the severity of violence in the workplace (ILO, 2018a, p.180).

The following data gives a snapshot of sexual harassment against women in a selection of countries:

  • A national survey in Australia found that almost two in five women and just over one in four men experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2018, p.8).
  • In Uganda, a survey carried out in over 2,910 organizations indicated that 90 per cent of women interviewed had been sexually harassed at work by their male seniors (ITUC, 2014b).
  • In Mexico, survey evidence estimates that 46 per cent of women employed in the formal economy reportedly experience some type of sexual harassment at work (Verite, 2009).
    • In Indonesia, 85 per cent of surveyed women workers reported that they were concerned with sexual harassment at work (Better Work, 2014).
    • In the UK, more than half of all women and nearly two-thirds of women aged 18 to 24 years responding to a national survey said they had experienced sexual harassment at work (TUC and Everyday Sexism, 2016).
    • A nation-wide survey on violence against women in Georgia with 6,006 women and 1,601 men, estimated that 20 per cent of women had experienced sexual harassment, and that 10 per cent of women reported experiencing it at the workplace.[1]
    • In France, 20 per cent of women workers said that they have experienced sexual harassment in the course of their working life (Défenseur des Droits, 2015). A further study in 2018 concluded that 1 in 3 women workers has been a victim of sexual harassment (Observatoire du harce?lement sexuel, 2018).

The following is a snapshot of data on violence and harassment across different sectors:

  • In the US, research findings suggest that more than 50 percent of women faculty/academic and other staff, and 20–50 percent of women students, encounter or experience sexual harassment in colleges and universities (Johnson et al, 2018a).
  • In Ecuador’s export-oriented flower production industry, over 55 per cent of flower workers who were surveyed said that they experienced some form of sexual harassment; this estimate rises to 70 per cent for younger workers between the ages of 20-24 years (Mena and Proan?o, 2005).
  • Approximately 60 per cent of surveyed Indian and Bangladeshi garment factory workers is estimated to have experienced “some type of harassment at work, verbal abuse or physical abuse” (Fair Wear Foundation, 2013).
  • In Cambodia, a survey of 1,287 garment workers (1,085 women and 198 men) showed that nearly one-third of women garment workers reported experiencing sexually harassing behaviours in the workplace over the 12-months prior to the survey (CARE International, 2017b).
  • A survey of 1,444 women transport workers’ experiences of violence and harassment in 24 European countries found that one quarter of women transport workers believed that violence against women is a regular occurrence in the transport sector (from colleagues/managers and from customers) (ETF, 2017).
  • A survey of nearly 500 hotel workers in Chicago, who are mainly women of colour and immigrants, found that sexual harassment and sexual assault happen regularly in the sector (UNITE HERE Local 1, 2016). Over half of all hotel workers surveyed (including housekeepers, room service servers, bartenders and servers) had experienced sexual harassment from guests, including incidences of sexual assault. Just under a half of housekeepers surveyed have had guest(s) expose themselves, flash them, answer the door naked or masturbate in their presence.

[1] Data was collected by UN Women in partnership with the national statistical office GEOSTAT. Additional information provided by Tamar Sabedashvili, UNWomen, Georgia. See: GEOSTAT and UN Women (2018) National Study on Violence Against Women 2017. Summary Report. Tiblisi, UN Women/GEOSTAT.

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