Remote Work, Sexual Harassment, and Worker Well-Being: A Study of the United States and India

Remote Work, Sexual Harassment, and Worker Well-Being: A Study of the United States and India

Jacqueline Strenio, Joyita Roy Chowdhury
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6754-8.ch003
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Workplace sexual harassment is a serious occupational hazard, adversely affecting workers' employment trajectories, economic well-being, and mental and physical health. Prior to COVID-19, it was widespread and primarily perpetrated by men against women, both in the physical workplace and physical and virtual public spaces associated with work. This chapter examines how the transition to remote work has effected changes in the prevalence and types of sexual harassment, paying attention to its gendered nature. Remote work holds both promise and peril. While exposure to physical harassment has fallen, information and communications technology has increased the risk of sexual harassment in virtual spaces. The cases of the United States and India are explored in more detail to compare worker experiences across the Global North and Global South, in countries with vastly different socioeconomic structures. This chapter contributes to the understanding of the benefits and challenges of remote work in combatting sexual harassment.
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Crises are often associated with an increased incidence of crime and violence, including violence against women (VAW) (Fraser, 2020; Palermo & Peterman, 2011). The COVID-19 crisis is no exception. It has created significant challenges in the global economy, including increasing all types of VAW. Despite international consensus and country-level efforts to eradicate VAW and promote gender equality, there are still various forms of discrimination which do not allow women to enjoy a safe and secure workplace (International Labour Organization [ILO], 2013). One widespread form of discrimination is workplace sexual harassment. As the vast majority of cases involve men harassing women, sexual harassment is also considered a form of VAW and is the most widespread form of VAW worldwide (Morgan & Gruber, 2010). The ILO defines sexual harassment as:

unwelcome sexual advances or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which has effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, abusive or offensive working environment. (2013, 6)

Sexual harassment also includes harassment that is not sexual in nature but rather based on a person’s sex or gender, such as gender-based insults. This includes any “unwanted sexual, homophobic, transphobic, and/or sexist experiences” (Stop Street Harassment, 2018). When considering workplace sexual harassment, in particular, this chapter takes a broad view of the ‘workplace’, similar to that defined in the UN’s Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls [UN WG], which includes:

…formal and informal work, public and private spaces of work, the commute to and from work, work taking place online or work enabled through information and communications technology, and work-related trips and events. (2020, 4)

Workplace sexual harassment is an occupational hazard and a substantial public health concern that adversely affects worker well-being (Sarkar et al., 2020). It is associated with mental and physical health issues, reduced productivity, impeded career progression, and financial distress. In many countries, it is classified as a form of sex discrimination and, therefore, illegal. Internationally, it is considered a human rights violation (UN WG, 2020). Despite all this, workplace sexual harassment is common. About 40% of women and 16% of men in the United States have experienced workplace sexual harassment. Even among humanitarian organizations, sexual harassment is rampant. One in three respondents in a United Nations (UN) sexual harassment survey reported experiencing sexual harassment in the past two years while working at the UN (Deloitte, 2019). In India, the prevalence is even higher. According to a survey conducted in 80 organizations across India’s major cities, more than 50% of women have experienced multiple forms of sexual harassment at the workplace (Sarkar, 2019).

There is no single, simple cause of sexual harassment nor one unified theory; however, multiple theories highlight the importance of power and status differentials in the perpetration of sexual harassment (Pina et al., 2009). For example, feminist theories view sexual harassment as a means of maintaining male dominance. Organizational theories focus on the role of sexual harassment in enforcing, challenging, or equalizing more general power hierarchies, rather than gender-specific ones (Pina et al., 2009). It is not surprising, then, that workplace sexual harassment disproportionately affects women. Although women bear the brunt of harassment, it is not just a women’s issue. Sexual harassment affects the physical, mental, and occupational well-being of workers of all genders globally, not to mention the ‘bottom line’ for firms and society (Cortina & Berdahl, 2008).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Violence Against Women: Gender-based violence perpetrated against women and girls. It includes any acts or threats that result in harm to women, including sexual harassment and assault, domestic violence, and intimate partner homicide.

Domestic Violence: Abusive behavior within the home, usually perpetrated by intimate partners. It can include physical and sexual violence, psychological violence, emotional and verbal abuse, neglect, and economic abuse.

Sexual Harassment: Includes harassment that is sexual in nature, such as a request for a sexual favor, as well as harassment based on a person’s sex or gender, such as gender-based insults. In many countries, it is considered a form of sex discrimination and illegal in the workplace.

Workplace: The workplace is broadly envisioned to include public and private workspaces in the formal and informal sector. This includes both physical and virtual spaces, including work-related travel, commuting to and from work, and work that happens online.

Sextortion: A form of sexual exploitation in which one person uses their power to extort sexual favors from another. Sextortion also refers to coercion that occurs through the threat of releasing sexual images of a person.

#MeToo: An international social movement against sexual harassment and assault that encouraged the sharing of experiences of sexual harassment committed by powerful men, primarily over social media.

Information and Communications Technology: All forms of communication technology, which includes Wi-Fi and the internet, cell phones, computers, and tablets, social media and networking platforms, email, and videoconferencing, among others.

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