Sexual Harassment Knows No Boundaries

Summer is the time for traveling, so I thought I’d take us on a whirlwind world tour to see – the Great Wall?  Machu Picchu?  Stonehenge?  Not quite, but something just as interesting.  Here’s a quick tour of laws on sexual harassment, from a few countries far and not so far from our own…

Let’s start right here in the US.  Although prohibitions on sexual harassment in the workplace have become deeply engrained in our culture, they are relatively recent. The first federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in the workplace was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  At first, courts rejected sexual harassment claims, holding that it wasn’t a form of sex discrimination.  Then, in the 1970s, courts began to recognize claims for “quid pro quo” harassment – in other words, it was illegal for a boss to tell a female subordinate, “Have sex with me or you’re fired.”  And finally, in 1986, the Supreme Court for the first time took the broader view that harassment doesn’t occur only when you lose your job because of it – instead, illegal harassment occurs whenever there you are subjected to a hostile work environment based upon sex.  A hostile work environment can be created in a variety of ways, including sexual touching, suggestive glances or gestures, sexual teasing, or the display of offensive sexual materials in the workplace.

Let’s now hop a plane to our most far-flung destination: Japan.  In Japan, widespread public awareness of sexual harassment (“sekuhara” in Japanese) first emerged in the late 1980s.  This occurred in the wake of a widely publicized court case, in which a Japanese female writer won a hostile work environment claim against her male editor for spreading rumors of promiscuity about her.  Japan’s first law specifically prohibiting sexual harassment was passed in the late 1990s. 

Workplace harassment in Japan can take different forms than it does in the US – for example, many women report being forced to serve tea or other drinks to male supervisors, and to do a “karaoke duet,” in which younger female employees are forced to sing romantic songs with older male supervisors.  Despite some cultural differences, though, there are also broad similarities.  The rates of reported harassment in the two countries are similar – about 50% of women in their 20s and 30s report experience sexual harassment at work.  And in both countries, the rate of reported harassment varies depending on where you work – for example, harassment is most prevalent in the manufacturing sector, and far less common in the government sector.

Moving along, we’ll stop in France, a country with a very interesting approach to sexual harassment.  Historically, France’s prohibition on sexual harassment has been much narrower than the US’s, outlawing only quid pro quo harassment and not hostile work environment.  In addition, French sexual harassment law only applies to supervisors, whereas US laws applies to coworkers as well (and sometimes even third parties).  At the same time, though, France has gone much further than the US by making harassment in the workplace a criminal violation.  And recently, in 2012, in the wake of the Dominique Strauss Kahn controversy, France went even further, broadening the criminal law to include “intimidating, hostile or offensive” behavior and making harassment punishable by up to 3 years in jail.

On our way home, we’ll stop at our neighbor to the north: Canada.  Canada’s courts began to recognize claims for harassment in the workplace beginning in the 1980s. Canadian courts adopted many of the same principles that had been developed in US courts, and in the 1980s Canada recognized both quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment as illegal.  However, there are also important differences.  Unlike in the US, Canadian courts have put less emphasis on how the harassment has affected the victim psychologically.  Canadian courts have also treated sexual harassment as more of a human rights issue than a women’s issue, focusing on the protection of human dignity, regardless of whether the victim is male or female.

Whether you’re traveling half-way across the globe this summer or staying right in your backyard, it’s worth doing a little virtual traveling to see how workers’ rights are different – or not so different – in other parts of the world.

If you believe your rights have been violated, contact us.