The reality of sexual harassment in the workplace: a reflection on Women Deliver 2019

To mark Canada’s second Gender Equality Week, MEDA is highlighting important issues and voices around women’s empowerment and gender equality in the area of economic development. This is the second installment of our #EveryoneBenefits blog series. This blog is written by MEDA Project Coordinator, Allison Nafziger on the reality of sexual harassment in the workplace and what MEDA’s doing to ensure its staff and clients are trained and protected.

In June I attended Women Deliver 2019. Heralded as “the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women,” this conference had a lot to say about the theme of sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

The #MeToo movement incited an important conversation about sexual harassment in different areas of society; from street-level harassment to board rooms. However, consensus among the general public about what sexual harassment is, how prevalent it is, who it impacts and, perhaps most importantly, what institutions can do about it has not been discussed. This is a lost opportunity.

In this blog, I’d like to explore these questions, drawing on discussions at Women Deliver as well as MEDA’s work in the area of gender equality and social inclusion.

What is sexual harassment?

Although the U.S. and Canadian governments have different legislative language to describe sexual harassment, a consolidated definition could be written like this: sexual harassment is any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee or affects an individual’s employment, interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

A key underlying message here is that the intent of the conduct, comment, gesture or contact is not considered important – it is the effect the conduct has on the person. Conflict definitions of sexual harassment are common because lawmakers, activists and reporters often concentrate on the intent (the perpetrator) rather than the impact (the victim).

Wade Davis, a former NFL player and consultant on gender, race and orientation equality has gone so far to state that “all men are guilty” of sexual harassment because it has become so normalized. This understanding of what is “normal” behavior leads many to assume that as long as the offender did not intend to cause harm, the harassment did not actually occur.

It would be remiss to discuss sexual harassment without examining power. Sexual harassment occurs as a result of power imbalances (or the perception of a power imbalance). Consolidated power has the potential to create an environment where there can be an abuse of power, in ways that people in positions of authority may not recognize. This includes microaggressions and gaslighting.

For example, sexual harassment in the workplace is more common than previously thought. According to Catalyst as many as 85% of women in the United States have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Many of MEDA’s clients experience sexual harassment in the form of street harassment and transactional sex (sex in exchange for basic needs, consumer goods and/or business favors). The most common impact of sexual harassment is a lack of mobility for fear of experiencing harassment. MEDA supports many of the companies we work with to develop gender equality policies and gender action plans including prevention of sexual harassment and gender-based violence as well as appropriate and response such as safe/anonymous reporting and zero tolerance policies. MEDA also provides training on gender equality for many of our small entrepreneur and farmer clients covering topics such as women’s rights, equitable division of labor and joint-decision making.

How Big is the Problem?

Quantifying the problem on a global level is difficult due to a lack of both reporting and data collection. However, it is concluded that sexual harassment is a global phenomenon. This is an issue that affects women and gender minorities from the United States to Nigeria, to India, to Cambodia. No country is exempt. To highlight the universality of sexual harassment, here are some regional stats on the subject:


  • An Actionaid report noted that in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India and Vietnam, 57-87% of women report having experienced sexual harassment.

Latin America

  • “In a survey conducted in 12 major cities in Brazil, 52% of women reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment at work (DeSouza and Cerqueira, 2008).”
  • Some evidence suggests that the risk of sexual harassment is higher for women who work in poor conditions or without legal benefits, as well as for women who lack social support, such as workers in border zone assembly plants — called maquilas — in Mexico (Magallón, 2007)”

Middle East and North Africa

  • In Egypt, a 2013 report by UN Women found that 99% of women surveyed across seven regions in the country had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
  • In a multi-country study from the Middle East and North Africa, between 40 and 60% of women said they had experienced street-based sexual harassment (mainly sexual comments, stalking/following, or staring/ogling).

West and Sub-Saharan Africa

  • More than 50% of women in Tanzania reported violence by their husbands or partners in a World Health Organization report, and that figure rose to 71% in Ethiopia. In Zimbabwe and Rwanda, 1 in 3 women has experienced physical or sexual violence.

North America

  • A report published by Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law concluded that while 50% to 80% of women experience sexual harassment at work, only 25% tell someone, and only 5% file a formal complaint. The most common reason for not reporting is fear of retaliation.
  • In other words, women have a far greater chance of being sexually harassed than becoming a CEO

Who does Sexual Harassment Impact and How?

Men and boys

It is more widely understood that harassment impacts women and girls around the world – but it also affects men and boys. While data is lacking on sexual harassment against males, one study from the American Sociological Review found that up to 37% of males and 58% of females in male-dominated industries experienced sexual harassment. Many of the cases in both scenarios were perpetrated by men.

Because men are usually the perpetrators of sexual harassment (statistics range from 86%- 93% of perpetrators are men), men who do not sexually harass still have to deal with the consequences – such as women mistrusting them or retaliation when they protest the behavior of other men. A study by Lean In found that 60% of male managers are now uncomfortable interacting with women in the workplace for fear of being accused – up from 32% in 2018. However, this fear of false accusations has been greatly inflated by the media. The reality is that false accusations happen only 2-8% of the time and even men who are convicted have continued their careers.

Marginalized populations

Despite increased media attention and reporting of sexual harassment, working-class women are still not likely to report for fear of losing their jobs. For example, one study found that women who have experienced sexual harassment are 6.5 times more likely to leave an employer after reporting sexual harassment than those who don’t report – indicating some form of retaliation. Domestic workers, farm workers, and those working in precarious or short-term employment are both more vulnerable to sexual harassment and have less protections.

Sexual harassment also disproportionately impacts women of color, immigrant women, LGBTQIA+ women and women with disabilities. One study found that women of color are more vulnerable to sexual harassment and less likely to be believed when they come forward. It is important to remember that #metoo was started by Tarana Burke, a woman of color, for women of color.

Recognizing that sexual harassment is ultimately an intersectional issue in the larger gender equality discussion, MEDA is committed to conducting a gender-based analysis in all environmental contexts to ensure that the organization is aware of complex systems of inequality and discrimination that negatively impact our clients and responding accordingly by providing analysis and training.

Allison at Women Deliver
Allison at Women Deliver

Are there any solutions?

Yes! Solutions are available at the personal, community and institutional levels.

Although men are often the perpetrators of sexual harassment, they are also integral to the solution. There are men who want to be allies but they are fearful of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Women can and should invite them into the conversation in an honest and inclusive way. As Women Deliver panelist, Wade Davis noted, for men to understand sexual harassment as a critical issue is to “make it personal”, noting “men often say ‘I cared about gender equality when I had a daughter’ but this is problematic – why were their mothers, wives etc. not reason enough?” Part of Davis’ work is to educate men and help them understand their role in combating sexual harassment and helping to create a more gender equitable society.

According to Tanya van Bieson, Executive Director of Catalyst Canada and panelist at Women Deliver, sexual harassment in the workplace persist because of:

  • a sense of entitlement that some men have toward women
  • the presumption that women won’t report and,
  • the presumed support from male peers that they will not speak up.

There are many things that institutions can do to prevent sexual harassment and respond to these three issues appropriately. The first step is to recognize that this is a “workplace issue” – not a “women’s issue”. In a report on sexual harassment in the workplace, Catalyst suggests these four mitigation strategies:

  1. Prepare – Acknowledge intersectionality (not everyone is at the same level of risk); make reporting fair and easy and include multiple and easily accessible channels.
  2. Prevent – Have crystal clear policies and acknowledge multiple forms of sexual harassment including patronizing, predatory and taunting.
  3. Respond – Have support for both the person who reported and the recipient of the report.
  4. Transform – Create a culture where this behavior isn’t tolerated. Ensure that everyone understands their role in preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

What is MEDA is doing?

  • In September 2018, MEDA commissioned an internal Gender Audit conducted by a third-party consultant to review corporate policies and practices and make recommendations for MEDA to advance in the area of gender equality and social inclusion at a corporate and programatic level
  • MEDA plans to upgrade the Gender Policy to a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) policy aligned with MEDA’s Code of Conduct
  • MEDA’s Code of Conduct has been expanded to include training on sexual exploitation
  • MEDA’s Gender Specialists and Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Team helps keep MEDA accountable by conducting corporate trainings and designed a framework to guide project planning and implementation in line with gender equality and social inclusion principles. MEDA also focuses a lot of our gender equality work on engaging men and boys. For example, the GROW project in Ghana developed a male gender activist initiative which has since been adapted and applied in Myanmar and Nigeria.

Additional Resources:



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