Workplace harassment victims belong to both sexes

Unwelcome touch: employees and managers are generally aware what constitutes inappropriate behaviour Keystone

Women and men can both face sexual harassment in the workplace and offenders aren’t always male, according to a study carried out as part of the national gender equality research programme.

This content was published on December 4, 2013 minutes and agencies

Around half of the 2,420 employees that were polled across the country for one survey used for the study said they experienced at least one occurrence of unwanted and potentially harassing behaviour.

Women are more likely to feel they have been harassed, which is considered a benchmark for sexual harassment under Swiss gender equality legislation. That perception varies, however, based on in which part of the country a person lives.

In German-speaking Switzerland, 31% of women felt they had been sexually harassed, while elsewhere the figure was slightly less than 20%. Men reported lower numbers, with 11% of German speakers, 7% of French speakers and 6% of Italian speakers saying they had received unwanted attention.

According to one of the study’s authors, Franciska Krings of the University of Lausanne, one reason for women’s higher subjective perception of being harassed “is that sexually harassing behaviour is more threatening for them than for men because of the traditional division of power in society and in many companies, and because of the sexes’ relative physical strength”.


A second survey of 800 workers looked at the perpetrators’ perspective. Two-thirds of the women polled and 71% of men admitted their behaviour might have crossed the line at least once over the previous 12 months.

Examples of possible harassment include making sexist remarks, initiating a sexual discussion, distributing pornographic material or even touching a co-worker in an indecent manner. The respondents also admitted that in these cases they realised their behaviour was inappropriate and could cause harm.

The researchers said their surveys showed there was “a clear consensus of what sexual harassment in the workplace is and that such behaviour is harmful”.

However, identifying who might be a victim or an offender is far from simple. “There is no such thing as a typical offender or a typical victim,” added Krings.

What is more likely to lead to sexual harassment is corporate culture, according to Krings and her colleagues.

A work environment where for example lewd double entendres are common can lead to more cases, highlighting the fact that mutual respect and ethical principles in the workplace are beneficial when it comes to avoiding harassment.

The researchers point out that workplace regulations are a first step in tackling sexual harassment, but are not enough in themselves since employees and managers are not even aware if their company has such rules.

The study’s authors also suggest that managers act quickly to deal with cases of harassment to send a clear signal and foster the development of a respectful corporate culture.

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