Prevalence of Sexual Harassment

last updated 18 January 2010

It is difficult to quantify the experience of sexual harassment in the workplace because (1) there is no universal definition of what constitutes sexual harassment, (2) men and women have varying perceptions of what sexual harassment means and (3) many victims of sexual harassment are reluctant to report their experiences. Low reporting rates are a result of fear of retaliation from employers, concern for the harasser, shame, belief in the futility of the complaint mechanism and/or fear of being blamed for the harassment. For more discussion of obstacles to reporting see the section entitled Barriers to Effective Enforcement of Sexual Harassment Law


Additionally, as noted by the Secretary General of the United Nations:  “The main source of information on sexual harassment in the workplace in most countries is the labour ministry or the national office that processes complaints against employers.  In countries where there is no legislation to address sexual harassment, there are virtually no records on its extent.” From Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, In-depth Study on all Forms of Violence Against Women 68 (July 2006). Surveys have been conducted by a variety of actors to estimate the proportion of individuals who have experienced harassment in the workplace, “but in developing countries, although harassment is recognized as a grave problem,” most information comes from anecdotal research and the true magnitude of the problem is not known or well documented.  Report of the Secretary General at 68 (Word). The manner in which surveys are conducted can also vary significantly by country and results can differ depending on which questions, and how many, are asked. European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Violence, Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace (2004) (PDF).

Despite difficulties in documenting the experience of sexual harassment, the results of quantitative and qualitative studies of sexual harassment conducted around the world demonstrate that sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious and pervasive human rights violation. See Report of the Secretary-General at 68 (Word) (“Regardless of data collection procedures, the actual number of women who experience sexual harassment is likely to exceed by far the number of reported cases.”) 

CEE/FSU Region

Sexual harassment is a significant problem in all countries in which it has been studied in CEE/FSU region.

In surveys conducted in Belarus and the Rostov region of Russia, 12.6% and 60% of women, respectively, reported that they had been subjected to sexual harassment. From The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Women 2000: An Investigation into the Status of Women's Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States 78, 383 (2000) (To retrieve the sections that address women's rights in Belarus and the Russian Federation, highlight the name of the relevant country in the "Countries" pull-down menu, highlight "Women's Rights" in the "Topics" pull-down menu, and enter "2000" in the field for date of publication.)

An employment survey and related interviews conducted in Bulgaria in 1999 revealed the following:

  • 10% of female respondents experienced questions of a sexual nature during a job interview and almost all such respondents indicated that they believed their negative answers to the sexual questions reduced their chances of receiving a job offer.
  • Almost 15% of female respondents reported that they had experienced unwelcome sexual contact from their co-workers, supervisors or both. If they refused the sexual advances, close to 33% of respondents indicated that they suffered negative consequences such as reduced status and decreased pay.
  • Many interviewees reported severe incidents of quid pro quo sexual harassment, including sexual favors demanded in exchange for raises or time off.
  • Many women reported incidents of hostile work environment, including the display of pornography, sexual innuendo and comments about appearance.

A survey conducted in Poland in 2002 concluded that 25% of women report experiencing unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace from colleagues and 18% of women report experiencing unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace from a supervisor. A director of an organization in Gdansk estimated, however, that in reality 50% of Polish women are victims of harassment in the workplace. Many factors were found to contribute to the underreporting of sexual harassment in Poland, including feelings of shame about the harassment and concerns that it will be futile to report incidents.

Adapted from The Advocates for Human Rights & Georgetown Law Center, Employment Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in Poland 22-32 (July 2002)(PDF, 63 pages); The Advocates for Human Rights, Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in Bulgaria (March 1999) (PDF, 36 pages); and Sexual harassment at the workplace in the European Union, European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs (1998).

One quarter of Czechs, primarily women, reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. According to a survey by the Czech Academy of Sciences, thirteen percent reported personally experiencing sexual harassment, while fifteen percent reported witnessing or hearing colleagues complain about sexual harassment. From One Fourth of Czechs Say They Have Met With Sexual Harassment,, © 1996 - 2005 Radio Prague, Czech Radio 7, August 10, 2005. Further information on the survey and a link to the Czech language report is available at the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

Sociometer, an independent sociological center, recently conducted a public opinion poll on sexual harassment in Armenia. The poll concluded that 78 percent of Armenian women consider themselves subject to violence and sexual harassment. According to the poll, such treatment causes one in every five women to quit her job and 5 percent of women have been forced into unwanted relationships with a male co-worker in a superior position within the company.  From Sexual Harassment in Armenia, StopVAW, and The Network of East-West Women-Polska/NEWW, Violence Against Armenian Women, 25 February 2005.

One researcher has noted that in Russia, more than half of men and most women believe that a woman who protests or resists sexual harassment in the workplace risks losing her job or suffering other retaliatory measures such as a reduction in salary, and may be unable to pursue a professional career. From Elena Mezentseva, Gender Inequality in Today’s Russia 5 (presented at a 2005 conference at Indiana University, in collaboration with the Russian and East European Institute, called “Gender and Feminism under Post-Communism.”)

Western Europe

Sexual harassment is a serious problem in Western Europe as well. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has concluded that "sexual harassment represents a substantial problem in most [Western] European countries." In a summary of two studies of sexual harassment completed in 1998 covering 16 Western European countries, the European Union concluded the following:

  • Very roughly, the percentage of female employees who have received unwanted sexual proposal (experienced some forms of sexual harassment) can be estimated at between 40 and 50 percent.
  • The verbal form of sexual harassment is the most common one. It is experienced by nearly two-thirds of female employees, but unsolicited physical contacts are also commonly suffered by female employees. At the other extreme of the scale, sexual assaults/rapes are reported by less than 5 percent of women.

From European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Preventing Violence and Harassment in the Workplace (2003) (PDF, 109 pages); Sexual harassment in the workplace in the European Union, European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment, Industrial Relations and Social Affairs (1998) (PDF, 243 pages).

International, Regional and National Developments in the Area of Violence Against Women 1994-2003, Addendum 1 to the 2003 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, E/CN.4/2003/75/Add.1 (Feb. 2003) (PDF and Word, 397 pages), reports that estimates made from six European studies place the proportion of women experiencing workplace sexual harassment at between 45 and 81 percent, and those reporting it at between 5 and 22 percent.

United States

It is believed that at least one-third of women in the United States experience some form of sexual harassment. In studies of sexual harassment in American companies, psychologist, Louise Fitzgerald, PhD, discovered that 40 to 60 percent of women in these companies experienced some form of harassing behavior. These studies, based on responses to Fitzgerald's renowned Sexual Experiences Questionnaire, have been used extensively in the most important sexual harassment litigation in the United States. From Bridget Murray, Psychology's Voice in Sexual Harassment Law, American Psychological Association Monitor (August 1998). In addition, the U.S. Government reported that 44% of women employed by the federal government had experienced harassment during the period from 1992 to1994. From U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workforce: Trends, Progress and Continuing Challenges, 13 (1995).

The number of harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state fair employment practices agencies has risen significantly from 10,532 in fiscal year 1992 to 12,025 in fiscal year 2006, peaking in 1997 and 2000 with nearly 16,000 charges filed in each year, an indication of either an increase in the experience of sexual harassment or an increase in willingness to report such conduct. From Sexual Harassment Charges EEOC & FEPAs Combined:  FY 1992-FY 1996 and Sexual Harassment Charges EEOC & FEPAs Combined: FY 1997-FY 2006.

Other Regions

International, Regional and National Developments in the Area of Violence Against Women 1994-2003, Addendum 1 to the 2003 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, E/CN.4/2003/75/Add.1 (Feb. 2003)(PDF and Word, 397 pages), provides the following synopsis of the prevalence of sexual harassment around the world:

  • The Women's Legal Center, a South African NGO, estimated in July 2001 that 76 percent of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment; 40 percent of these women had left their jobs or changed jobs as a result of the harassment;
  • A 1997 survey by the Japanese Ministry of Labor reported that 62 percent of women claimed to have experienced at least one act of sexual harassment; and
  • The New Zealand Human Rights Commission survey on sexual harassment in 2000 found that one-third of all women had been sexually harassed. Younger women were likely to be harassed and the most common place was the office.

In 2004, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission reported the results of a nation-wide survey, which found that 41 per cent of Australian women aged between 18 and 64 years have experienced sexual harassment. Two-thirds of this sexual harassment occurred in the workplace, with 28 per cent of Australian women reporting that they experienced sexual harassment at work.  One-half of the incidents of reported workplace harassment continued for more than six months and half were considered very or extremely offensive by interviewees.  The greatest prevalence of sexual harassment occurred among women younger than 45.

Categories of Women Who Are Particularly Vulnerable to Sexual Harassment

Although sexual harassment transcends occupational and professional categories, age groups, educational backgrounds, racial and ethnic groups, and income levels, some studies have concluded that certain groups of women are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. The European Commission has noted that "[d]ivorced and separated women, young women and new entrants to the labor market, women with irregular or precarious employment contracts, women in non-traditional jobs, women with disabilities, lesbians and women from racial minorities are disproportionately at risk." From European Commission Recommendation of 27 November 1991 on the protection of the dignity of women and men at work, 1992 O.J. (L49) 1.  Widows, women working in informal sectors of the economy and migrant workers are also particularly at risk.  See International Labor Organization, Sexual harassment at work:  National and international responses 4-5 (2005). In the United States, scholars and journalists have revealed that sexual harassment is particularly virulent in male-dominated professions such as the military. From National Women's Law Center, Women in the Military; The NewsHour, War on Harassment. A 2005 survey by the Department of Defense Inspector General reported that more than 50 percent of women at the four military service academies have experienced some form of sexual harassment, and more than 10 percent of women at the service academies have experienced some form of sexual assault.