Workplace sexual harassment is internationally condemned as sex discrimination and a violation of human rights, and more than 75 countries have enacted legislation prohibiting it.
Sexual harassment in the workplace increases absenteeism and turnover and lowers workplace productivity and job satisfaction. Yet it remains pervasive and underreported, and neither legislation nor market incentives have been able to eliminate it.
Before the 1970s, the term “sexual harassment” would have been met with a blank look. Sexual overtures and disparaging remarks about workers’ competence based on their gender were widely considered acceptable behavior. In 1974, a US district court judge found that a woman whose job was eliminated in retaliation for refusing to have sex with her supervisor was not protected under employment law but was instead facing the personal consequences that may arise when sexual advances are rebuffed.
Recognition of sexual harassment as an illegal workplace behavior originated in the US following influential work by Catharine MacKinnon, who argued that sexual harassment is sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1980, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidelines defining workplace sexual harassment. Many countries quickly followed the US’s lead in recognizing sexual harassment as an illegal form of workplace behavior. Sexual harassment in the workplace is now internationally condemned as a form of sex discrimination and as a violation of human rights. It is costly to workers and organizations. Yet it remains pervasive. What market failures prevent its eradication, how effective is legislation, and what policies can reduce the incidence?