Sexual Harassment & COVID-19: The Blurring Of Boundaries

The COVID-19 pandemic has revolutionized our workplaces. Face-to-face interactions have largely been replaced by screens. Has COVID-19 eradicated workplace sexual harassment, or has it just taken a new form?

Increase of Sexual Harassment during the Pandemic

In late 2020, a prominent UK women’s charity, Rights of Women, conducted an online survey to investigate the prominence of workplace sexual harassment towards women, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey found an ‘upsurge’ of online sexual harassment while employees have been working from home, particularly through social media and online work platforms.[1]

Of the surveyed women who reported that they had experienced sexual harassment:

  • 45% reported experiencing sexual harassment remotely, such as through sexual messages, sexual calls or cyber harassment on work platforms;
  • 42% experienced some or all of the sexual harassment online;
  • 23% reported an increase or escalation of sexual harassment while working from home since March 2020;
  • 15% reported some or all of the harassment moved online while working from home since March 2020.

One woman surveyed described the added complications of working from home, stating that she has been deprived of privacy with her work colleagues being able to see inside her home and bedroom. She said: “Having to let colleagues into my bedroom (via video meetings) means I feel my privacy has been invaded and nowhere is safe. The men now have more ammunition to mock me with.”

Another woman surveyed described how she had been sexually harassed via Zoom, and how her privacy and integrity had been compromised: “The director of the company uses Zoom to take screenshots of myself and other women which he shares with colleagues making derogatory statements and implying the photos look like we’re doing sexual acts.”

These statistics and accounts are appalling, and although based on UK data, it is not unlikely that there would be similar experiences amongst Australians. According to Crikey, there has been an 87% increase in adult cyber abuse reports in Australiathroughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when comparing 2020 statistics to those from 2019. 66% of victims were reported to be female.[2]

Issues Reporting Online Sexual Harassment

According to Dominique Allen, an associate law professor at Monash University, it may be difficult for victims to report online sexual harassment, as there is a lack of oversight that being in the workplace typically provides.[3] For example, if a colleague was being sexually harassed in-person in the workplace, they have greater access to colleagues and HR to report the issue. However, being isolated from other colleagues can make victims feel more alone and reluctant to report the sexual harassment to their employer.

However, even after reporting sexual harassment, there can be major complications for victims in having their employer address their concerns. Firstly, because the conduct occurred online, it can be harder to address than if it had occurred in person. Secondly, investigations may be delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Rights of Women survey also investigated the difficulties women were facing in reporting online sexual harassment. It was found that 72% of women experiencing sexual harassment did not feel like their employer was doing enough to protect or support them. Furthermore, 29% of women who reported their sexual harassment to their employer felt that the response had been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One surveyed woman reported that the workplace investigation into her sexual harassment was delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions. The woman also reported that her employer was reluctant to take action with her harasser because it was considered risky not very important during the COVID-19 situation.

Although sexually harassed in person rather than online, a surveyed female hospital employee reported that due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The hospital’s resources were diverted and delayed the investigation into her sexual harassment. Meanwhile, the woman was unable to be protected from her harasser because he was not moved into a different department pending investigation.

‘Inadvertent’ Sexual Harassment

Instances of sexual harassment may be further complicated by claims that inappropriate behaviour was inadvertent. Whether or not the conduct is intentional or not, remote working arrangements can blur the line between personal and professional life, and the conduct can still be deemed sexual harassment.

In October 2020, a writer for the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin, was suspended from work for showing his genitals and masturbating on a Zoom call with colleagues. Toobin alleged that he did not know his video was on and that it had been an inadvertent mistake.[4] After being suspended for one month, Toobin was dismissed from his employment with the New Yorker.

In March 2021, a high-ranking Swedish politician and school teacher was accused of masturbating during an online lesson with 7th grade students. The incident came to light when the students filmed the online call and posted it on social media. The footage depicts the politician slouched on a couch and his hand is seen moving into his pants around his genitals. The man is then seen moving the camera upwards, as though noticing that what he was doing could be visible to students.

Following the media scandal, the politician was suspended from teaching and he resigned from his position in local government. In response to the incident, the politician alleged that he was only scratching his groin because of a skin fungus.[5]

In both of these circumstances, disciplinary action is justified and sexual harassment has occurred. It is not professional or appropriate for employees to be touching their genital area during Zoom calls. This is regardless of whether it is supposedly inadvertent or not. It may be different if it is a mistake that seems beyond the control of the individual, but if their deliberate actions make colleagues feel uncomfortable, offended or intimidated, then the conduct can amount to sexual harassment.

Why Has Sexual Harassment Increased?

It is difficult to say precisely why sexual harassment appears to have increased with the shift to remote working arrangements, though there are some possible considerations.

Kalpana Kotagal, a partner at Cohen Milstein, a law firm in Washington DC, explained that the isolation of working from home can lead perpetrators to believe no-one is watching. That they will not get in trouble for inappropriate behaviour. If sexual harassment occurs in a typical workplace, there can be witnesses around that can intervene or attest to the victim’s version of events. However, working from home can mean the perpetrator feels that they will not be caught, while the victim feels alone and disempowered.[6] 

Another explanation is offered by Jennifer Brown, an expert on diversity equity and inclusion: “Since the start of the pandemic, employees have felt as if online environments are the Wild West, where traditional rules do not apply.” The added informality of workplace interactions when working from home can blur the lines between personal and professional lives. This can lead to perpetrators taking a step too far, perhaps believing their conduct is a joke. It is also difficult to decipher tone in messages, emails or other online communication, only creating further potential for jokes to be poorly made or misconstrued.[7]

Jennifer Brown also referred to stress related to the pandemic having an impact on employee behaviour. Stress related to health, finances or the future can cause perpetrators to act more irrationally, manipulatively or cruelly than they otherwise might. When compounded by the added informality of online environments and reduced oversight mechanisms, it becomes much easier for perpetrators to sexually harass colleagues.

Moving Forward

The issue of workplace sexual harassment during COVID-19 is widespread and not showing any signs of stopping. As employees around the world continue to adapt to a new way to work and live, sexual harassment prevention should not fall by the wayside. Reports are consistently demonstrating that remote working arrangements during COVID-19 are exacerbating sexual harassment statistics.

All employers should ensure that they have and enforce robust policies against sexual harassment. These should be adapted to the unique challenges of COVID-19 and remote work. It is not enough for employers to merely take a passive approach to sexual harassment and wait for employees to make reports. Studies have shown that isolation while working from home can make it more difficult for employees to report sexual harassment. Employers should be proactive in mitigating sexual harassment, as the safety and wellbeing of employees cannot be compromised.

As for employees, despite difficulties in reporting sexual harassment when working remotely, it is imperative that any and all instances of sexual harassment should be reported to management as soon as possible.

It is only through a collaborative and systematic approach between employer and employee that the preponderance of workplace sexual harassment can be reduced. 

Your welcome at all times to give us at A Whole New Approach P/L. Discuss your situation, or maybe you know someone who is subject to inappropriate behaviour or sexual harassment. We can represent you at the various Equal Opportunity Commission, the Human Rights Commissions and the Fair work Commission Call 1800 333 666

We need to get through these tough times together, treat each other with respect. Speak up, don’t suffer in silence, we are here to support you

[1] ‘Rights of Women Survey Reveals Online Harassment Has Increased, As Women Continue to Suffer Sexual Harassment Whilst Working Through the Covid-19 Pandemic’, Rights of Women (Web Page, 11 January 2021) <https://rightsofwomen.org.uk/news/rights-of-women-survey-reveals-online-sexual-harassment-has-increased-as-women-continue-to-suffer-sexual-harassment-whilst-working-through-the-covid-19-pandemic/>.

[2] Amber Schultz, ‘Zoom Abuse: What Makes Online Workplaces So Ripe For Harassment?’, Crikey (online, 20 October 2020) <https://www.crikey.com.au/2020/10/20/zoom-abuse-what-makes-online-workplaces-so-ripe-for-harassment/>.  

[3] Ibid.

[4] Laura Wagner, ‘New Yorker Suspends Jeffrey Toobin for Masturbating on Zoom Call’, Vice (online, 20 October 2020) <https://www.vice.com/en/article/epdgm4/new-yorker-suspends-jeffrey-toobin-for-zoom-dick-incident>.

[5] Gabriel Geiger, ‘Politician Accused of Masturbating on Zoom Says He Was Scratching an Itch’, Vice (online, 27 March 2021) <https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7m9km/politician-accused-of-masturbating-on-zoom-says-he-was-scratching-an-itch>.

[6] Leah Fessler, ‘Workplace Harassment in the Age of Remote Work’, New York Times (online, 8 June 2021) <https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/08/us/workplace-harassment-remote-work.html>.  

[7] Ibid.

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