The workplace characteristics that enable sexual harassment

Jenny Lincoln, Business in the Community Gender Research and Policy Officer discusses the unacceptable issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and why it should be a business imperative to take action. 


Sexual harassment is endemic in today’s society and sexist attitudes are being carried into the workplace. When our 23,000 female respondents to Project 28-40 were asked - unprompted - what their organisation could do to improve the overall culture in their workplace, addressing bullying and harassment was the most frequent suggestion.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome and unreciprocated behaviour; it is not consensual behaviour between two people who are mutually attracted to each other.[1] It ranges from physically harmful and serious to non-physical and belittling behaviour. Less serious harassment is often excused as ‘banter’ or “it was only a joke”, yet enduring sexist or sexual remarks becomes highly damaging to both employees and employers.

So why does sexual harassment still occur at work?

Whilst, yes, individual perpetrators can and should be blamed for bad behaviour, extensive research shows how structural and cultural factors enable the ongoing existence of sexual harassment in today’s workplaces. In fact, there are specific workplace ‘characteristics’ that increase both the likelihood of it occurring in the workplace and how serious it is.

  • Power and gender roles. The relatively powerless at work are easily targeted, such as temp workers[2] or those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Yet women in positions of power and authority are also at increased risk – it is used to put them back in their place; their subordinate and submissive position to men in society.[3] ‘Laddism’, a form of ‘modern masculinity’ has emerged in parallel with women’s increased economic empowerment and consequent separation from their traditional, powerless societal role. On the rise in UK universities, it is largely defined by the sexual objectification of women, and sexual harassment and molestation are commonplace.
  • Workplace anonymity. The formal grievance procedures in large organisations protect against serious abuse, however the anonymity of large organisations increases the risk of all other types of sexual harassment, because employees are less connected and more able to act without the awareness of others.[4]
  • Lack of manager and co-worker solidarity will also enable sexual harassment to continue, since employees are less invested in their colleagues’ wellbeing and less willing to intercede.[5]
  • Male dominated and physical work has long fostered male solidarity and pride, and centres on the physical body, so the presence of women may be seen as a threat to such masculinity, leading to an increased likelihood of sexual harassment.[6]
  • Gender composition. Sexual harassment is more likely to occur in workplaces or teams with a high proportion of men, mostly because it is easier and safer to target those in the minority.[7]

Why should employers act on this?

Not dealing with sexual harassment leads to disengagement with work, poor performance, lost productivity, absence, resignations or dismissals and / or employment tribunals, all of which are very costly to the employer financially, as well as reputationally. It is not only victims that are impacted, but witnesses too: the perception of a work environment as being tolerant of sexual harassment has been found to be a better predictor of mental ill-health than actual reports of sexual harassment.[8]

Ignoring this epidemic makes a mockery of attempts to create an inclusive, diverse and safe environment. Employers must first accept that it could be prevalent in their workplace – even if they have no personal experience. They should then adopt a holistic and thorough definition of sexual harassment and actively communicate the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour to their employees, before tackling the root cause: the unequal distribution of power between men and women.


[2] Chamberlain, L.J et al. 2008. Sexual harassment in organizational context. Work and Occupations. 35(3) pp. 262-295

[3] McLaughlin, H et al 2012. Sexual harassment, workplace authority, and the paradox of power. American Sociological Association.

[4] Chamberlain, L.J et al. 2008. Sexual harassment in organizational context. Work and Occupations. 35(3) pp. 262-295

[5] Ibid

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] Hulin et al. 1996. Cited in Martino et al. 2003. Preventing violence and harassment in the workplace.