What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
last updated 8 January 2010

The term "sexual harassment" first came into use in the late 1970s in the United States. The term's origins are generally traced to a course on women and work taught by Lin Farley at Cornell University. In 1979, Catherine MacKinnon, a legal scholar from the United States, made the first argument that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the constitution and civil rights laws of the United States. Since then many international bodies, national legislatures and courts have prohibited sexual harassment but have not agreed on a universal definition of the term.

There are a few common elements in definitions of sexual harassment worldwide. Generally speaking, behavior constituting sexual harassment in the workplace must:

(1) occur in the place of work or in a work related environment;

(2) occur because of the person's sex and/or it is related to or about sex;

(3) be unwelcome, unwanted, uninvited, not returned, not mutual; and

(4) affect the terms or conditions of employment (quid pro quo sexual harassment) or the work environment itself (hostile work environment sexual harassment).

The United Nations General Recommendation 19 to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women reaffirms these elements by defining sexual harassment to include "such unwelcome sexually determined behavior as physical contact and advances, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions. Such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem; it is discriminatory when the woman has reasonable ground to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment, including recruitment or promotion, or when it creates a hostile working environment." See Sexual Harassment; Law & Policy; International Law.

Adapted from Martha Chamallas, Introduction to Feminist Legal Theory, 5, 46-47 (2003); Katharine T. Bartlett et. al, Gender and Law: Theory, Doctrine and Commentary 552 (2002); Susan L. Webb, Shockwaves: The Global Impact of Sexual Harassment, Susan L. Webb (1994).

Sex of the Harassed and the Harasser

Many laws prohibiting sexual harassment recognize that both men and women may be harassers or victims of sexual harassment. It is important to note, however, that most victims of sexual harassment are women and most claims of sexual harassment are made by women. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions concludes that, "while there is evidence that men may also experience unwanted sexual attention and harassment, [sexual harassment] is still a problem that particularly affects women." In addition, approximately 85% of sexual harassment claims made in the United States in 2006 were made by women. From European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Preventing Violence and Harassment in the Workplace (2003)(PDF, 5 pages); Sexual Harassment Charges EEOC & FEPAs Combined: FY 1997-FY 2006.  A 2005 report by the International Labor Organization also indicates that sexual harassment is more prevalent against women who are more vulnerable, such as young women, separated, widowed or divorced women, women employed in “non-traditional” or male-dominated professions, women working in informal sectors of the economy, or migrant workers. International Labor Organization, Sexual harassment at work:  National and international responses 4-5 (2005).