Survey Finds One Third of UN Workers Experienced Sexual Harassment in Last Two Years
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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A confidential online survey found that 38.7% of respondents experienced sexual harassment while working at the UN.

At the same time, 70.7% of respondents reported that their immediate supervisor demonstrates zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

The report suggests that UN entities take a stronger, more proactive role in setting expectations of respectful behavior through inclusion codes, training programs and workplace civility.

24 January 2019: As part of efforts to better understand sexual harassment across the UN system, Deloitte conducted an online survey in November 2018, with participation from 30,363 UN personnel. The resulting ‘Safe Space Survey Report’ released in January 2019 finds that one in three respondents reported experiencing at least one instance of sexual harassment in the last two years. Junior Professional Officers, UN Volunteers and Consultants reported the highest prevalence rates.

The confidential survey was made available in the six official UN languages. It had a 17.1% response rate, as it was completed by 30,364 staff and non-staff personnel from across 31 UN entities. The survey report shares insights across five areas: prevalence of sexual harassment; the target experience; the witness experience; work environment; and organizational policies and processes.

On prevalence of sexual harassment, 38.7% of respondents experienced sexual harassment while working at the UN, with 33% of respondents experiencing at least one instance in the last two years and 20.2% experiencing at least one type of sexual harassment prior to 2016. Sexual jokes or stories were the most common forms of sexual harassment reported, followed by offensive remarks about appearance, body or sexual activities, and efforts to draw an individual into a discussion on sexual matters or touching.

Targets of sexual harassment reported that 58.3% of experiences occurred in the office environment, followed by 17.1% occurring at work-related social environments. Targets reported that 51.4% of harassers were colleagues, and 24.3% were managers or supervisors. Two out of three harassers were male and one in three harassers was between 45 and 54 years old. The majority of respondents felt the incident was too minor to take action, although 19% did not report the incident out of fear that it would have a negative impact on their career. Another 18% did not report the incident out of a belief that the complaint would not be taken seriously.

Over 70% of respondents said sexual harassment is not tolerated in their workplace, with 70.7% reporting their immediate supervisor demonstrates zero tolerance for sexual harassment, and 59.2% saying senior leaders demonstrate zero tolerance. The majority of respondents said they were aware of how their organization defines sexual harassment (79.7%) and policies and procedures in place to manage sexual harassment incidents (74.9%).

To reduce harassment by colleagues in the workplace, the report suggests that UN entities take a stronger, more proactive role in setting expectations of respectful behavior through inclusion codes, training programs and workplace civility. The report identifies women and transgender personnel, between the ages of 25 and 44, mainly Junior Professional Officers, Associate Experts, UN Volunteers and Consultants, as vulnerable targets that require priority attention. It further suggests priority attention be paid to potential harassers, particularly men between 45 and 54 years old. Other recommendations address providing guidance to witnesses and addressing information gaps. The report recommends that UN entities re-administer a comprehensive sexual harassment survey in two-year intervals to measure the effectiveness and impact of policies and interventions overall and on target groups.

Also on gender and sexism, the Feminist UN Campaign released its second annual report card of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s progress in achieving a more feminist UN. The report card titled, ‘Progress Under Threat,’ finds that this Secretary-General has made “slow but steady progress” across most of the Campaign’s agenda, receiving a B- compared to 2018’s C+. The authors note that Guterres has made progress towards gender parity in leadership and is on track to meet or exceed benchmarks in that area.

Other areas of progress highlighted in the report include: increased public messaging on women’s rights and gender equality; and efforts to address sexual harassment and gender-based violence, including through the Deloitte survey. However, the report cautions that UN bureaucracy and internal backlash threaten the Secretary-General’s efforts to make structural changes. The report card initiative is led by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

The Secretary-General launched a UN system strategy on gender parity in September 2017. [Publication: Safe Space: Survey on Sexual Harassment in our Workplace] [Devex story on survey report] [Publication: Progress Under Threat: A Report Card on the Secretary-General’s Second Year from the Feminist U.N. Campaign] [UN Press Release on Launch of Gender Parity Strategy]

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