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Commentary: When Sexual Harassment Is Legal

November 17, 2017, 8:44 PM UTC

What do 424 million working-age women have in common?

They all live in countries with no legal protections against sexual harassment at work.

Over the past few weeks, millions of women have shared their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace, from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to state and federal legislatures. Using the hashtag #MeToo, women recounted instances when they were subject to everything from demeaning comments to sexual assault, and denied promotions or opportunities when they objected to unwanted advances.

In the U.S., where sexual harassment is legally prohibited, the #MeToo movement is giving rise to an overdue reckoning with workplace culture—and a newfound commitment to implementing laws already on the books. Since the movement began, prosecutors are increasingly investigating allegations of sexual assault, and numerous companies and professional associations have vowed to step up enforcement of their policies.

Importantly, the #MeToo campaign has gone global, inspiring women to share personal accounts of sexual harassment in 85 countries and counting, with women in France, Italy, and nations across Latin America and the Middle East launching their own offshoot hashtags. In many parts of the world, however, sexual harassment is not only pervasive—it is also perfectly legal.

According to a new research from the WORLD Policy Analysis Center at UCLA, 68 countries—more than one in three—do not have any workplace-specific protections against sexual harassment. These legal gaps span countries in all regions and at all income levels, collectively leaving 424 million working-age women—including 235 million who are currently in the workforce—with no legal recourse when faced with an abusive supervisor or hostile work environment.

Many working women also remain unprotected against sex discrimination in other areas—including compensation, training, promotions, or demotions—which further jeopardizes their safety and status in the workplace. The absence of basic legal protections for women on the job creates the conditions in which abuse can thrive, since sexual harassment and assault are often presented as the price of admission for a job, raise, or promotion. For some women, impunity for discrimination in the workplace creates intolerable work environments. For others, it may deter entering the labor force altogether.

These consequences matter—and not just to women. Only around half of the world’s working-age women participate in the labor force, compared to around three-quarters of their male counterparts, and sexual harassment and other discriminatory behavior that keeps women out of the workplace undermines economic growth. One recent analysis from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that closing gender gaps in the workplace could help add up to $12 trillion in global gross domestic product by 2025. For national economies, reaching gender parity in employment could boost GDP by 5% in the United States, 9% in Japan, 12% in the United Arab Emirates, 27% in India, and 34% in Egypt. At a time when the global economy is still recovering from a downturn, we can’t afford to ignore discriminatory conditions that reduce economic potential.

To reach all 2.4 billion working-age women worldwide, we need laws that prohibit sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace in every nation in the world. And companies should take action in all of the countries in which they do business—not just those that already have strong laws.


To be sure, outlawing sexual harassment and sex discrimination is but one step on the road to workplace equality. After all, as the current outcry in the U.S. shows, federal and state laws prohibiting harassment went unenforced for decades in a range of sectors, from media to academia to the restaurant industry. And in many instances, even countries that already have laws on the books still need to strengthen those protections by closing legal loopholes that have enabled sexual harassment to go unaddressed or unreported, as lawmakers in at least two U.S. states have promised to do.

But women and men around the world need more than a social media campaign to fight the epidemic of sexual harassment on the job. They need the legal tools that prohibit discrimination in the workplace, and provide a mechanism to hold perpetrators accountable. As courageous individuals continue to speak out, let’s be sure to remember those who have the least protection against workplace abuses that have no place in the 21st century.

Dr. Jody Heymann is the dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and founding director of the WORLD Policy Analysis Center. Rachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School.