New normal, sexual harassment on spotlight

Sexual harassment is fairly a new phenomenon in the sense that there was no phrase that described it until the late 1970s. 

It coincided with the period when women became so important in the labour force as their share of employment rose from 33 per cent to 42 per cent over the preceding two decades.

A formal legal definition came in 1980 when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a United States (US) federal agency stated that unwelcome sexual advances which affected an individual’s work were grounds for complaint.

The law was slow to take hold. Only 16 cases were recorded between 1980 and 1985.

But after the Supreme Court ruling in 1986 decided that sexual harassment was covered by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and held companies liable for harassment of employees even if the company is not aware of it, the number of sexual harassment cases shot up.

In the intervening 30 years, there have been 400,000 complaints against companies.

Even before the Harvey Weinstein story broke the dam, the number of cases has risen by five per cent since 2014.


Efforts towards reducing the incidents of sexual harassment have always met with numerous frustrations.

Since the majority of sexual harassment goes unreported, its true prevalence can only be guessed.

Most of the sexual harassment that happens in institutionalised environments, such as schools and companies, is hushed up because of fear of victimisation.

A student in school may decide to keep quiet for fear of being marked down in examinations.

Fear of losing one’s job, concern about being labelled troublemaker, lack of faith in the human resource department’s ability to handle the claim, and lack of witnesses ‒ that is, their word against the other person’s ‒ are some of the factors that lead to sexual harassment being swept under the carpet most of the time at the workplace.  

A recent report by EEOC provided a range of 25 per cent to 85 per cent for the share of women who have faced sexual harassment at some point in their working lives.

Just 17 per cent of cases were brought by men.


Creating awareness of the need to prevent sexual harassment, especially within institutions where people work and study, can go a long way to change people’s attitudes towards women positively.

The most important single thing is for organisations and institutions to have a credible threat of sanctions for perpetrators.

That also means protecting staff that speak out.

Progress has been made over the years in awareness creation and prevention of sexual harassment.

However, more effort is needed in that direction.

Until women and girls feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment and feel confident in their employers that a repercussion will occur, the fight against sexual harassment will still have to continue unabated.

This is especially important when avoiding the emotional and financial cost of sexual harassment to the victim and the employer.

The creation of a new norm and acceptable behaviour, especially for men and boys, is likely to prove more effective.


Illustrative signposts on university composes and other places of higher learning, and codes of conduct established within certain organisations and companies are working in reversing the trend.

There is already evidence that attitudes are changing.

Definitely, you are not left out in that crusade.

The writer is with the Institute of Current Affairs (ICAD).

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