Every third woman in Switzerland has been sexually harassed at work at least once. That was the conclusion of a representative study in 2008 - this is before #metoo when sexual harassment became a widely discussed topic. Unfortunately, nothing has changed since. A new study from 2019 came to the same conclusion: one in three women still experiences sexual harassment at work. And I personally have countless friends who tell me about colleagues who violate boundaries, about this so-called "open secret": everyone in the company knows about it but nobody does anything.

So many CEOs, supervisors, and employees have asked themselves the question: Am I doing enough to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

Every third woman in Switzerland has been sexually harassed at work at least once.

A woman told me yesterday that she has a new work colleague. He used to work at another location of the company and has now been transferred to them because he had sexually harassed an employee at the previous location. At least the company acted: it took the harassed employee's complaint seriously and, with his transfer, ensured that she was protected in the future. Unfortunately, this approach is still anything but self-evident. When I was helping victims, I accompanied many women who disclosed sexual harassment at work, were not taken seriously, and finally saw no other way out than to leave the company.

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I would therefore like to focus on those companies that think they protect their employees adequately. Perhaps by confronting the harassers, transferring them, or even firing them. That may indeed be praiseworthy; but if nothing more is done, this measure often misses the mark. The problem has only been solved in the short term, but it persists in the longer term. It's not enough to get rid of a harasser if you don't change the culture of the company.

The formula is simple: in healthy company culture, harassers cannot rule, in a toxic company culture they can. Incidentally, toxic company cultures are not individual men who sexually harass, but all employees who contribute to this culture by remaining silent, looking the other way, or watching instead of intervening. The question arises: What is the culture like at my workplace?

Agota Lavoyer
The formula is simple: in healthy company culture, harassers cannot rule. In toxic company culture, they can.

We need to keep two things in mind:

First, sexual harassment is not a failed flirtation or misunderstanding, and it very rarely has anything to do with sexual desire. Sexual harassment is a show of power. It's an "I do it because I can" and an "I don't care how you feel about it" demonstration. Sexual harassment is systematic abusive behavior by people in positions of power. And since the workplace is about power, hierarchies, and dependencies, sexual harassment is never harmless. Speaking of which, have you ever wondered why they say "She slept her way up" and not "He ignored her expertise and only saw her as a sex object"? In order to prevent possible victim-deprecating thoughts, I would like to add: You cannot provoke abuse of power. Neither through certain behavior nor through clothing.

Second, too often the focus is on whether what a data subject reports is sexual harassment at all. Too often the harasser is defended because "he certainly didn't mean it that way". Let me tell you: It doesn't really matter how he meant it. As long as you focus on whether or not there was harassing intent behind a statement or action, you distract from the much more central question: Did the other person feel harassed or not? Sexual harassment starts when the person concerned feels harassed. It becomes very difficult if the person concerned cannot avoid it. She's dependent on the job and can't just break off her relationship with that co-worker or her boss. This in turn gives the harasser power over them. And here we arrive again at dependencies, abuse of power, and a toxic corporate culture.

Agota Lavoyer
Sexual harassment is not a failed flirtation or misunderstanding, and it very rarely has anything to do with sexual desire. Sexual harassment is a show of power.

With these two facts in mind, let's take a close look at company culture. Ask yourself these questions about your company:

  • Does someone in my company intervene if sexist slogans are spoken during the coffee break or derogatory remarks are made about women's bodies (sexism is the ideal breeding ground for sexual harassment)?
  • Do all employees know who to turn to if they are being sexually harassed?
  • Is it easy for employees to disclose their experiences, or is it difficult for them due to long communication channels and toxic company culture?
  • How have complaints of sexual harassment been dealt with in the past, and what impact could this have on victims and perpetrators?
  • What measures does my company take to prevent sexual harassment?
  • And what is my personal contribution to this?
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My experience is that smaller companies in particular often lack defined procedures for dealing with sexual harassment. In many companies, those responsible have too little knowledge of hierarchies, dependency relationships, and power mechanisms and what these have to do with sexual harassment. Whoever has power, whether formal or informal, bears responsibility. In the area of ​​sexual harassment, this responsibility cannot simply be delegated to HR. We all have a responsibility (and with more power, the more) to ensure a work environment that makes it harder for employees to engage in sexual harassment and makes it easier for victims to speak up and seek support. This is the minimum that employees can expect. Are you doing your part?

If you are sexually harassed at work, you can get free professional support from Victim Support and Equal Opportunities Offices. You can find an overview of all cantonal and municipal contact points throughout Switzerland, as well as useful tips and information, at beläsigt.ch.