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October 31, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

Progress Toward Ending Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in the World of Work

by Robin R. Runge

Gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH), including sexual harassment in the world of work, is an epidemic, a human rights violation, and a primary barrier to gender equity, women’s economic security, and safe and respectful workplaces for everyone. Recently, international and domestic policymakers, enforcement agencies, workers, worker rights and women’s rights advocates, human rights and civil rights advocates, employer organizations, and others have identified specific strategies that collectively are necessary to effectively prevent and address GBVH in the world of work including:

  1. Prohibitions of behavior must extend beyond sexual harassment to all forms of GBVH in the world of work;
  2. Interventions to address GBVH in the world of work must be conducted in conjunction with initiatives to prevent and address racism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, ableism, and religion-based harassment and violence because these abuses often co-occur, and one cannot be effectively addressed without addressing each of them;
  3. Initiatives must be led by and co-created with workers disproportionately impacted by GBVH and the co-occurring forms of violence and oppression;
  4. Protections and remedies must extend to all workers (volunteers, interns, apprentices, contractors) and third parties (e.g., customers) in the world of work;
  5. Protections and remedies must extend to the entire world of work, wherever and however work is performed (home, conferences, online);
  6. Integration of accountability structures must include accountability for the individual who committed the abuse as well as the employer where the abuse occurred, recognizing that how work is structured can create risk factors for GBVH that may need to be addressed and must include remedies and support tailored to the needs of those who experienced the impacts of GBVH (e.g., paid leave from work for survivors during an investigation into an allegation of GBVH);
  7. Ongoing in-person interactive peer-driven education and awareness on what GBVH is, what its root causes are, the scope and incidents in that workplace, and the impacts are necessary as a part of efforts to shift the culture to one of mutual respect and safety;
  8. A trauma-informed, transparent, timely, confidential process for receiving and investigating concerns and complaints regarding GBVH in the world of work; and
  9. Ongoing evaluation of all aspects of the program to prevent and address GBVH that is shared with the entire workplace community and integrated into ongoing improvement efforts.

This article briefly highlights how some of these approaches are being identified and integrated into policy advocacy and implementation in the United States.

A survey of 3,000 businesses and law firms conducted in July 2018 found that 68 percent of female respondents had experienced sexual harassment.

A survey of 3,000 businesses and law firms conducted in July 2018 found that 68 percent of female respondents had experienced sexual harassment.


GBVH in the World of Work Is an Epidemic

GBVH, including sexual harassment, remains a significant human rights violation and a primary barrier to safe and inclusive workplaces. In the United States, two-thirds of women workers and over half of male workers in the restaurant industry who responded to a Restaurant Opportunities Centers United survey in 2014 stated that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment from management, and nearly 80 percent of women and 55 percent of men experienced some form of sexual harassment from customers. A 2016 survey of about 500 women conducted by the union UNITE HERE Local 1 in Chicago found that 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers have been sexually harassed by a guest, including incidents like a guest answering the door naked or exposing themselves. Similarly, high rates of sexual harassment, including rape and other sexual violence, have been reported by farmworker women, female construction workers, and food processing workers in the United States. A survey of 3,000 businesses and law firms conducted in July 2018 found that 68 percent of female respondents had experienced sexual harassment. (Hannah Hayes, Is Time Really Up for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace? Companies and Law Firms Respond, Am. B. Ass’n (Jan. 17, 2019).)

Women of color experience higher rates of GBVH in the world of work: a 2016 study on workplace harassment in the fast-food industry found that 33 percent of Black women and 32 percent of Latinas experience sexual harassment compared to 25 percent of white women. In addition, GBVH includes the impacts of domestic and sexual violence on the world of work. According to a survey by the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, 44 percent of all employed adults reported having personally experienced the effects of domestic violence (either against themselves or a coworker) in their workplaces. Thirty-five to 53 percent of employed victims of domestic violence report losing their jobs due at least in part to domestic violence.

National Advocacy to Prevent and Address GBVH in the World of Work

In 2015, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, prohibiting discrimination and harassment in the workplace based on sex, race, national origin, color, and religion, created a Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (Select Task Force) to examine the efficacy of existing efforts to prevent and address these abuses. After its investigation, the Select Task Force issued a report that contained specific recommendations for employers and a list of risk factors for harassment and strategies for overcoming them. Similarly, in 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a Consensus Study Report on Sexual Harassment of Women, which contained recommendations to address sexual harassment in higher education that highlighted the need to expand the traditional legal definition of sexual harassment. The report specifically focused on the need for system-wide changes to the culture and climate to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. They recommended that colleges and universities adopt policies and practices that address and prevent all forms of sexual harassment and promote a culture of civility and respect.

Moreover, in December 2018, leading civil rights, social justice, and women’s rights organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, issued their priorities for legislative action to eliminate workplace harassment. They called for reforms to state and federal laws to better address and prevent all forms of discrimination and harassment—not only sexual harassment—by recognizing the intersectional nature of abuse and harassment experienced by different workers based on their overlapping and intersecting identities such as gender, race, ability, age, national origin, or religion. They also demanded that reforms addressing harassment and discrimination be extended to workers who are not currently covered by existing federal anti-discrimination employment laws, including guest workers, independent contractors, domestic workers, unpaid interns, and those in nontraditional employment relationships. In addition, their call to action stated that policy reform must require that employers provide annual training for all supervisors and employees and must provide multiple internal reporting mechanisms, including options for confidential and/or anonymous reporting. Finally, the American Bar Association adopted two policy resolutions in 2018 urging employers in the legal profession to prohibit, prevent, and promptly address sexual harassment and retaliation claims and to urge governments and international institutions to adopt and implement legislation and regulations to eliminate, prevent, and provide remedies consistent with ILO C190 for gender-based violence in the workplace, including sexual harassment.

Recent Federal and State Legislation

In 2019, the Ending the Monopoly of Power over Workplace Harassment through Education and Reporting (EMPOWER Act) and the Bringing an End to Harassment by Enhancing Accountability and Rejecting Discrimination in the Workplace Act (BE HEARD Act) were introduced and reintroduced in 2021 and incorporated several recommendations from the Leadership Conference and the EEOC Select Task Force described above. In addition, as of October 2022, more than 70 pieces of anti-harassment legislation have been adopted in 22 states and the District of Columbia. (#Metoo Five Years Later: Progress & Pitfalls in State Workplace Anti-Harassment Laws, National Women’s Law Center.) These laws included 10 states and the District of Columbia expanding workplace harassment protections to independent contractors, domestic workers, interns, and volunteers and 13 states implementing or strengthening anti-harassment training requirements or required anti-harassment policies.

Federal Government Leadership to End GBVH in the World of Work

Most recently, the Biden-Harris administration has taken several steps to advance efforts to prevent and address GBVH in the world of work embracing these same strategies. In 2021, it issued the first-ever National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, which listed among its strategic priorities eliminating gender-based violence, including sexual harassment specifically naming the workplace, citing the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the world of work, including gender-based violence and harassment (ILO C190). The Biden-Harris administration also updated and expanded the U.S. Strategy to Prevent Gender-Based Violence Globally and issued the first National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Each of these strategies expressly incorporated addressing GBVH in the world of work, including a reference to ILO C190. Recognition of not just sexual harassment but all forms of GBVH as barriers to equality and equity for women in each of these documents is a significant and necessary step to advancing and improving our legal responses to these abuses. Similarly, the National Plan to End GBV specifically mentions the importance of the term “world of work,” as it includes “not only traditional workplaces, but anywhere workers are paid, in places workers take rest breaks, in work-related training, and through work-related communications,” recognizing that protections from and remedies for GBVH must cover workers wherever work is performed.

This summary of recent advances in law and policy advocacy addressing GBVH, including sexual harassment in the world of work, demonstrates the significant progress in a very short time in large part due to the leadership of those who disproportionately experience these abuses. Hopefully, their voices will continue to be heard and will ensure that the human right to be free from GBVH in the world of work is realized for all of us.

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Robin R. Runge

Distinguished Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School, 2023-24 Chair ABA Civil Rights and Social Justice Section

Robin R. Runge, J.D., is an internationally recognized legal expert on preventing and addressing gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. She is a consultant and a Distinguished Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School, where she teaches Domestic Violence Law and directs the Workers’ Rights Division of the Access to Justice Clinic.