Closing the gender gap in the workplace is one of the most critical challenges facing the global community. The benefits of more women engaging in economic activity include increased firm performance and productivity, poverty reduction and higher GDP levels. As young women join the labor force, the importance of ensuring a safe workplace cannot be emphasized enough. While there is ample evidence of the cost of sexual harassment to both victims and businesses – research also shows that unsafe workplace environments negatively impact women’s labor market outcomes.
Introducing sexual harassment legislation is a crucial first step toward ensuring safer workplaces for women. Though the existence of a law does not guarantee access to justice, it is a step towards reducing impunity and establishing mechanisms for redress. Women, Business and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform’s Starting a Job indicator analyzes, among other things, whether economies have legislation protecting women from sexual harassment at work, and whether such legislation includes provisions for civil remedies or criminal penalties.
Over the past ten years, every region of the world experienced an increase in the number of economies with legislation on sexual harassment in employment. According to WBL 2009 data, 51% of economies had such legislation in place, whereas by WBL 2018, this figure reached 70%. While all regions improved, there is still significant room for countries to do more. For example, 48% of economies in East Asia and the Pacific and 68% of economies in the Middle East and North Africa do not currently have laws on sexual harassment in employment.
South Asia is the only region where every economy has legislation on sexual harassment in employment, with six economies introducing such legislation within the past ten years. However, it is important to note that South Asia is the smallest region in terms of number of economies.
There are certain triggers for reforms benefitting gender equality – for instance, advocacy proved critical in India in the Supreme Court case of Vishaka v State of Rajasthan, where women’s groups filed public interest litigation to enforce the rights of women in the workplace under the Indian constitution. The case led to the development of the Vishakha Guidelines, which defined sexual harassment in the workplace and provided measures to deal with it. Having criminal penalties or civil remedies for sexual harassment in employment is crucial to guaranteeing women’s security and protection in the workplace. Women, Business and the Law data shows that over the past 10 years, criminal penalties or civil remedies were introduced in every region. Globally, 18% more economies offer women such protection compared to a decade ago.
Affording women security and protection from sexual harassment is one way to break legal barriers to women’s career advancement. Besides entering the labor force, women must stay in it. Sexual harassment hinders firms’ employee and talent retention rates and leads to non-negligible economic impacts. Changing laws to create safer and more efficient workplace environments benefits everyone.