The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders have spurred increases in VAWG severe enough to be labeled a pandemic itself, the so-called shadow pandemic. Although much of the attention has focused on domestic violence (DV), we highlight another component of the shadow pandemic –workplace sexual harassment. It is the most prevalent type of VAWG worldwide and adversely affects workers' mental and physical health, disrupts employment trajectories, and reduces economic well-being. The perpetration of workplace sexual harassment is not confined to the physical office, but rather has moved online along with work, facilitated by information and communications technology (ICT).
The ILO defines workplace sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which has the effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, abusive, or offensive working environment.”
Despite being illegal in countries in both the Global North and Global South, workplace sexual harassment is common. In surveys conducted before the pandemic, 40% of women and 16% of men reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment in the US, while more than 50% of women in major cities in India reported experiencing multiple forms of workplace sexual harassment. Worldwide, gender is the biggest risk factor and prevalence rates for women have remained stubbornly high.
The disruption to the world of work by COVID-19 offers an important inflection point for researchers, policymakers, and activists as new norms around remote work are being established and new forms of ICT are becoming standard. Firms’ and workers’ adaptability to remote work provides hope that other entrenched workplace norms--those that have enabled the perpetration of workplace sexual harassment--may also be disrupted. Increased reliance on ICT brings new types of harassment, but also presents novel approaches to identifying and combating it. We focus only on the subset of workers who could continue to work remotely, noting the extreme precarity of workers excluded from work-from-home arrangements. Although the time employees spend commuting and at the workplace has decreased, reducing their exposure to physical harassment, there is little reason to believe remote work alone will eradicate workplace sexual harassment.
First, new and emerging communications technology, and the internet overall, are not neutral territories. They can reproduce and even amplify existing hierarchies and discrimination. Women’s experiences online more generally before COVID-19 have disproportionately included incivility and discrimination. Although online, the consequences are just as severe as harassment initiated offline. Online harassment is associated with the same negative health effects as physical harassment, but additionally, declines in future technology use which may worsen the existing gender digital divide. Moving work into online spaces in which misogynistic content is rife and where access is often governed by patriarchal norms means that women risk violence and face gendered power imbalances each time that they log on.
Other aspects of remote work have increased the risk of harassment. Remote work has become a 24/7 experience meaning exposure to virtual workplace sexual harassment has risen drastically. Microsoft reported a 52% increase in work communications among their employees during evening hours. The perceived anonymity and informality of remote work and late hours may embolden harassers. Additionally, the increase in communication channels, such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp, Discord and a myriad more, coupled with an increase in one-on-one meetings, make it impossible for managers to monitor all work-related interactions.
Remote work (which is primarily “work from home”) may also inadvertently exacerbate the risk of DV. Early research from the US finds the largest increases in DV calls occurred during daytime, weekday hours when individuals may have previously been at work. More generally, COVID lockdowns resulted in increases in DV in countries around the world, including the US, UK, China and India. Increased exposure to DV can negatively affect women’s ability to work from home. These two effects may compound, reducing women’s well-being and increasing their risk of job loss.
Although systematic data collection on online sexual harassment since the pandemic is lacking, early anecdotal evidence from the finance sector suggests that workplace sexual harassment is indeed increasing. And, facilitated by ICT, it is taking on new forms such as Zoombombing. There have always been difficulties in defining and identifying workplace sexual harassment, but these challenges have become especially acute as it moves online.
Yet, remote work, and the associated increase in use of ICT, also provides opportunities for employers to challenge online harassment. Increased familiarity with webinars allows for the implementation of virtual trainings to clearly define online workplace sexual harassment. Many forms of ICT can make it easier to document and officially report sexual harassment cases. They also allow for the creation of informal, anonymous reporting channels. Such channels may improve data collection efforts, aid women that are unable to access official complaint mechanisms, and help reduce retaliation against workers that report harassment. More generally, technology has also allowed for increased connection, activism, and organizing. For instance, the 2017 #MeToo movement, originating in the US, rapidly spread around the world, amplifying women’s voices and their experiences of sexual harassment.
Early evidence from the transition to remote work has clearly emphasized that workplace sexual harassment is not primarily a result of physical access, but rather a problem of workplace culture and power differentials. This fits feminist theories that highlight how sexual harassment is used to maintain patriarchal power relations. Disrupting these patriarchal norms and rigid hierarchies is what will ultimately eradicate workplace sexual harassment, creating more inclusive virtual and physical workplaces. Although these are large changes that require social support, the widespread move to remote work provides evidence that radical shifts in workplace culture are possible.
- Government of India. (2015). Handbook on sexual harassment of women at workplace. Ministry of Women and Child Development
- Cortina, L. M. & Berdahal, J. L. (2008). Sexual harassment in organizations: a decade of research in review. In J. Barling & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), SAGE handbook of organizational behavior: volume 1 – micro approaches (pp. 469–497). SAGE Publications.
- Although we focus on the experiences of sexual harassment in remote work, it’s important to note that many workers were left out of remote work arrangements. This is especially true in countries in the Global South, such as India, where the majority of women workers are employed in the informal sector. Pre-pandemic, these women faced the highest rates of workplace sexual harassment. With India’s strict lockdown measures, informal workers largely lost their jobs, many being forced to return to rural areas. Therefore, although many of these women are not currently exposed to workplace sexual harassment, they have found themselves in precarious economic situations, with drastic declines in well-being.
- This is still a relatively new research area, but already work has been done on identifying and defining online VAWG; see UN Women’s Brief on Online VAWG during the pandemic
- We echo calls from Holland et al. (2020) on the pressing need for sexual harassment climate surveys in higher education to similar data collection efforts among businesses.
- In India, several social, attitudinal and systemic barriers restrict women from accessing complaints mechanisms and taking action against the harasser. See Ahuja, K.K., Padhy, P., & Srivastava, G. (2019). MeToo at the Workplace: Exploring Sexual Harassment Experienced by Female Employees in Private Sector Organisations in Delhi-NCR. OPUS 10(2), 21-45
- Pina, A., Gannon, T. A. & Saunders, B. (2009). An overview of the literature on sexual harassment: Perpetrator, theory, and treatment issues. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(2009), 126-138.