Our award-winning reporting has moved

Context provides news and analysis on three of the world’s most critical issues:

climate change, the impact of technology on society, and inclusive economies.

Global firms lag on sex harassment, women-friendly policy

by Sonia Elks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 4 March 2021 11:00 GMT

Women wears face masks outside an office complex in Beijing as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, China, March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Image Caption and Rights Information

Most big firms are failing to ban sex harassment at work or enact policies that let mothers work flexibly

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, March 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Most big firms are failing to ban sex harassment at work or enact policies that let mothers work flexibly, a global workplace equality index found on Thursday, highlighting the obstacles women face at work.

Fewer than half of firms' policies directly address sex harassment, despite years of #MeToo campaigns that show the extent of abuse at work, said the report by women's workplace equality organisation Equileap.

The finding suggests legislation to force action is a "necessary evil", said its chief executive Diana van Maasdijk.

The index data was drawn from 3,702 firms in 23 countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Britain and Australia.

"It's only when companies are forced to do something that it's going to happen," said van Maasdijk, citing progress in Spain after a law compelled firms to publish plans that addressed sexual harassment.

"Some studies have shown one in three women will experience sexual harassment in their lifetime, so it's really important that this is addressed and it is called exactly what it is."

The #MeToo movement began in 2017 in the United States after accusations of sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood, and quickly spread to a worldwide campaign that sparked wider debate around harassment, pay and representation.

Women went online to call out their male bosses - from tech to academia - and share stories of unwanted sexual approaches, harassment, coercion, discrimination in the office or poor pay.

But three years on and 51% of companies assessed for the index did not publish an anti-sexual harassment policy last year, said Equileap, albeit an improvement on the 58% in 2019.


The report also highlighted the problems mothers routinely face juggling paid work and a rota of home duties, a struggle exacerbated by the pandemic.

Setting aside temporary policies enacted for the crisis, it found a lack of permanent, flexible working policies at many firms, with less than four in 10 publishing a policy on flexible hours and just 24% offering one on location.

Women made "modest" progress on cracking glass ceilings in the latest annual report, it said, with women making up 25% of company boards, 17% of executives, 24% of senior management, and 37% of the overall workforce last year.

The pandemic may bring some wins for women at work: more firms are likely to make flexible working permanent and ethical investors increasingly focus on gender, said van Maasdijk.

But there is a risk that COVID-19's outsized impact on women's jobs may slow or push back progress, she said.

"We will have to see if we will have the same number of women in the workforce after the pandemic," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call.

"I'm hoping that we will, but I'm a little worried."


Risk of online sex trolling rises as coronavirus prompts home working 

As #MeToo turns three, founder launches platform to fight sexual violence 

After #MeToo, U.S. women seen reporting less workplace harassment

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.