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Publication: Gender & Behaviour
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 93409
ISSN: 15969231
Journal code: GNBV


The research interest for this paper was triggered by a Nigerian friend of mine who was fired from her job because she failed to have a sexual relationship with her boss. In addition to this, the whole area of sexual harassment and non-consenting sexual relationships particularly as it relates to working women has not been adequately explored.

Several studies have been carried on sexual harassment in elementary schools and institutions of higher learning in Nigeria, but little attention has been paid to working women, because, sexual harassment is not only confined to students.

Sexual harassment is an act perpetrated by men against women which includes unwarranted sexual advances making it difficult for women in the workforce unable to carry out their duties on an equal basis.

In Nigeria, there has been a debate on sexual harassment championed by Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, but there are currently no national policy guidelines to serve as deterrents to perpetrators. That is to say; the problem of sexual harassment is not adequately addressed.

Review of Literature

As Fitzgerald and Shullman (1993) pointed out, sexual harassment in the workplace is extremely serious; yet we know little about workplace sexual harassment (Hendrix, Rueb, & Steel, 1998). In Personal and Human Resource Management (1993), Leap and Crino concur by saying that both the victim and the alleged perpetrator of workplace harassment can suffer serious trauma and irreparable damage to their careers, no matter how the case is resolved. Research revealed that women are more likely to view potentially harassing behavior as inappropriate as men (see Fitzgerald and Ormerod, 1991; Fitzgerald and Shullman, 1993; Gutek, & Morasch 1982; William, Rueb & Steel, 1998).

According to Williams (1998) not all research supports the primary conclusion cited above, that potentially harassing behavior is perceived as more sexually harassing when the initiator is a man.

Other research area focused on the power of the harasser. Bursik 1992, Katz 2009, rationalize that when an individual occupies a position of power, the act is likely to be seen as sexually harassment than when the harasser who possesses little power (see Bursik, 1992, Katz, Hannon and Whitten, 1996; William 2002). In other words, individuals in positions of power, say ,supervisors and executives, are more likely to have their acts perceived as more sexually harassing by subordinates than individuals with less power (Doughtery , 1999; Williams,2002;).

Land-breaking research conducted by Reilley, Lott and Gallogy (1986) on age and sexual harassment concluded that older married men were viewed as more sexually harassing than younger single men. Other studies focused on the attractiveness of the victim of sexual harassment (quoted by William 2002). By applying a unitary standard on harassment Gruber (1992) develops a typology of sexual harassment comprising of three general types of behavior ( verbal request, verbal comments and non-verbal displays and shows cross-cultural evidence (see Bimrose 2004) and conclude that women from different cultures have similar view on the severity of sexual harassment (see Stockdale, 1996). In other words, sexual harassment defies national boundaries or "geo-political cultures." Endorsing this view, Wasti and Cortina (2002), focusing on culture, argue that "cultural forces" support and perpetuate sexual harassment.

Much of the research conducted in Nigeria has been performed with university students. For examples, Yahiya (1990) focuses on institutional cultures and on daily life of university setting "to investigate the lecturers and students' perceptions of sexual harassment in the universities as a disciplinary problem undermining the Nigeria universities. Adedokun (2005) examines how sexual harassment influences, interferes with student s' academic performance and the extent in Nigerian tertiary educational institutions. On the other hand, Lodebo (2003) focuses on female employees in a Nigeria work environment and identifies factors which encourage or discourage sexual harassment at the work place.

The present study aims to fill the vacuum created by paucity of research on sexual harassment in the workplace.


Sexual harassment is one of the most widespread crimes against women. According to authorities this phenomenon has been in existence with us for a long time (Valence 8c Bullough 2004). The problem began to manifest itself as women entered into the workforce. Instead of women being seen as equal partners, they are regarded in the workplace as lacking in competence. Importantly, they are being viewed as objects for sexual gratification and not as serious workers. These factors generated a body of literature from feminist scholars, political scientists and different academic disciplines calling attention to gender discrimination (See Pickerill, Jackson, 8c Newman, 2006).

It was not until the late 1970s that it was recognized as a form of gender discrimination (EEOC Guidelines). Prior to this, the Supreme Court in Meritor Saving Banks v. Vinson recognized the hostile environmental harassment.

In 1991, allegations that the U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill when he was her supervisor at the EEOC led to the United Stated being inundated with the problem of sexual harassment during the Senate Judiciary hearings. (Pickerill, Jackson, Newman, 2006). Consequently, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was enacted delineating laws regarding sexual harassment in America (Kane-Urrabazo 2007). Sexual harassment reached its crescendo in the Tailhook scandal in allegation of sexual harassment involving Navy aviators. The victims alleged that they were subjected "to groping, sexual comments and sexual abuse from their drunken males" (Valente 8c Bullough, 2004: 235; Pickerill, Jackson & Newman, 2006). As the case of Clarence Thomas, once again, America was rocked by sexual exploitation of victims of gender discrimination.

Unquestionably, the subject of sexual harassment received media exposure because of the following factors: The body of literature produced by feminist scholars, and the guidelines provided by the EEOC. Importantly, the ruling on Meritor Saving Bank v. Vinson (1986) explained what constitutes the hostile working environment.

The EEOC serves as the umpire in violations of sexual discrimination laws in the United States. "In the UK, NHS Security Management Service is responsible for the operational policy on violence, including that of sexual harassment and hostile workplace environments" (Kane-Urrabazo, 2007: 610).

Definition of Sexual harassment & Guidelines

Sexual harassment greatly affects the workplace environment. Friedman (1992) defines" sexual harassment" as a "conduct typically experienced as offensive in nature, in which unwanted sexual advances are made in the context of a relationship of unequal power or authority "(p. 9). In legal terms, Petrocelli and Repa define sexual harassment as "...any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment." (p. 2). Put simply, sexual harassment is any offensive conduct related to an employee's gender that a reasonable woman or man should not have to endure, (ibid.) The Civil Rights of 1964, it made sexual harassment a violation. It states: "It is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against any individual with respect to his or her compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin..." (Quoted by Kane-Urrabazo, 2007).

In 1980, the U. S Equal Opportunity Commission issued its guidelines on sexual harassment and defined as follows:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work Work environment (U.S. EEOC, 1980).

The act identifies two categories of harassment. They are: "Quid pro quo" harassment, literally translated to mean "this for that", and a hostile environment.

Quid pro quo harassment

Quid pro quo harassment "refers to a situation in which an employee is forced , directly or indirectly , to choose between giving in to a supervisor's sexual demands or" forfeiting an economic benefit , such as pay increase, a promotion, or continued employment ( Diamant& Lee, 2002;p. 85 ). This type of sexual harassment is based on the premise that the harasser will make sure that the recipient gets promoted or gets a pay raise if the recipient gives in to the harasser's advances (Herbert, 1994; Robinson, 2005).

According to the Civil Rights Act of 1991, four requirement s are to be met in order to establish quid pro quo harassment. The employee must prove that:

1. There was unwelcome harassment in the form of sexual advances or request for sexual favors.

2. The harassment was based on sex.

3. Submission to the unwelcome sexual advances resulted in job detriment

to the individual who claims harassment. (Kane-Urrabazo, 2007).

Hostile Work Environment

The second type of sexual harassment deals with offensive or hostile working environment. It includes unwarranted behaviors such as: "touching, sexual comments, jokes, and sexually oriented pictures. " The prevailing definition includes: Tell sexual jokes, use of sexual innuendoes, make sexual comments about a person's clothing or anatomy negatively, repeatedly asking a person out, have suggestive visuals and use of sexual gestures and use of slang names such as honey ( see Hendrix ,Rueb 8c Steel, 1998; 235). If one exhibits such an unwelcome sexual behavior, it constitutes an offensive or hostile working environment. Particularly, if there is no equal initiation and participation between the two people interacting.

Cultural Factor

Evidence suggests that in traditional societies such as Nigeria, cultural factors contribute to sexual harassment. This mindset is attributed to traditional gender roles. For example, in Nigeria, culture regards premarital and extramarital sex as inappropriate for women, whereas, sex is viewed as a "psychological necessity for men." (See Wasti and Cortina 2002; Fitzgerald, Shullman et al., 1988). Such a double standard is permissible in the Nigeria judicial system. A woman in Nigeria who engages in sex with a man may be charged with adultery, whereas a charge against her husband on one single occasion would have to be proved with evidence of the man's actually living with the woman (ibid. p. 395; see Ogunzman 8c Dural, 1998).

The structure of Nigerian society favors men in their formative years of sexual life. The men can have sex with numerous partners and have extramarital relations. Women are stigmatized and devalued for the same behavior. To illustrate this, during adolescence age, Nigerian women are confined to the home. They are being chaperoned by their parents to prevent sexual exploitation. On the other hand, adolescence boys are encouraged to explore their sexual virility. Because of this, Nigeria n women are vulnerable to accept men's aggressiveness as normal and consider such behavior as not worth of reporting.

As Wasti & Cortina (2002) argue, factors such as "blame and damage to personal, family and professional reputations may suppress reporting" by women of sexual harassment in traditional societies, (ibid., p. 395).

Another factor that hinders reporting of sexual harassment in Nigeria is that it is a taboo for women to engage in sexual discussion. Women who disclose their sexually inappropriate behaviors are considered as shameful to their family. Society considers these types of women as whores. As a result, they rarely report sexual harassment to anybody for fear of being blamed for the incident. For example, a Nigerian father may respond to his daughter's being raped by insinuating his daughter asked for it. The patriarchal structure of Nigeria is a daunting problem in addressing the issue of gender discrimination.

The current research focuses on factors contributing to workplace sexual harassment. Furthermore, the research will investigate the reluctance to report sexual harassment, and to find out if it is culturally based. The following hypotheses are used to guide this research.


1. Male initiators (harassers) are more likely to be perceived as more sexually harassing than female initiators (harassers).

2. Initiators (harassers) who are older and married are more likely to be perceived as more sexually harassing.

3. Initiators (harassers) who have high position such as supervisors are more likely to be perceived as more sexually harassing than those with low positions of power or peers.


In this study, we discuss preliminary finding on the issues of sexual harassment in the workplace by drawing on the study of 34 female workers. The questionnaires were administered in Abuja, Nigeria. The questionnaires were sent via the internet. Our interest in this study is to provide much needed empirical evidence on the type of harassment and to focus on the following: 1. How prevalent is it and nature of the harassment; 2. What is its effect on workers; and 3. What are workers responses to such behavior? Those were the questions of the study. At the last minute, we decided to shift our focus to address the sexual harassment as it relates to the bosses and female workers. The rationale of this focus is that sexual harassment in the workplace has not been adequately addressed in Nigeria. Our aim was to survey at least 100 females, but it was a daunting job to find even 40 participants to conduct this study. The reason, Nigerian women are afraid to discuss their problems openly. The guiding hypotheses above will be our foundational basis for the research.


The table shows Nigerian women who responded to the 19 questionnaire surveys.

Discussion & Conclusions

This study encountered unwillingness among the women participants. We sent out more than 100 questionnaires. We received less than fifty percent. We attributed this to apathy and lack of education on sexual harassment. The more educated women were willing to participate in the survey. We decided to make the questionnaires simple by asking open ended questions. The questions demand "Yes" or "No." Based on the respondents, one thing is certain; sexual harassment is rife in the work place in Nigeria. For example, in item 10 in the questionnaire where participants were asked if they experienced sexual harassment, 27 responded positively that they experienced sexual harassment and 13 participants said No. This is more than 50% of those sampled. When asked in a typical month if they experienced sexual harassment, a majority of those sampled said yes. There is an overwhelming response that a boss who harasses female workers should be fired. This tells us that Nigerian women know that sexual harassment should not be tolerated in the workplace. Many subjects sampled said that legislation should be in place to curb sexual harassment in the work place. Seventy-seven percent supported that legislation should be passed.

When it comes to reporting the initiators of sexual harassment, Nigerian women are being intimidated and afraid of job security. One participant expresses the general view of Nigerian women. She writes:

"I was a new hire in the American company. I was sexually harassed by my boss during the orientation. I could not report it because I was afraid to lose my job."

In support of this, another participant has this to say:

"In our society, sexual harassment is seen as a normal way of life in the workplace. We have a long way to go in solving this issue; although, most of the ladies are giving in to such harassment these days in order to save their jobs but in the long run they still lose the job they are trying to protect, because when the boss satisfies himself, he still pressures the victims out of the company."

Apart from being fired from the job, we find the central factor is cultural. Most Nigerian women are raised to be subservient to men. The belief that "women are to be seen and not heard" holds sway in Nigerian society. This is reinforced by social belief that women are inferior and they are portrayed as sexual and men are eroticized (Lenton, 1999; 519). These myths are further reinforced by the government which is reluctant to pass any legislation on sexual harassment. There is also the fear that she asked for it makes women to bear sexual harassment in silence. Also, the fear that she asked for it makes women bear sexual harassment in silence.

Another female commentator warns that sexual harassment "may also come from a co-worker who is not necessarily your boss." This warning alerts us that in Nigeria, the working environment has become a mine field to Nigerian women. In other words, the work environment has become a "Catch 22" to Nigerian women, who have to navigate the workplace to avoid sexual predators. If they are not harassed by their boss, their co-workers are ready to do what has not been done by their bosses.

We followed the survey with telephone interviews with a few of the participants. The interviews revealed that the initiators "modus operandi" is intimidation and coercion meted against their victims. Most of the initiators according to the interviewees were older men, and married. As one interviewee puts it:

"I have to take care of my boss sexually knowing fully well that he is happily married. If

I do not, I would lose my job. If this is what it takes to keep the job, I would continue

to please him sexually. In Nigeria of today, these are the way things are. "

The interviewed participants described a string of types of sexual harassment. They include sexual comments, grabbing and unwelcome sexual behaviors. Comments made to female workers read like: "You are so beautiful I would like to bed you to show what a man can do to a woman like you."

The interviews reveal that other tactics engaged by the perpetrators are trying to force themselves on the victims by grabbing their buttocks or kissing their victims on their cheeks. Participants described some inappropriate sexual behaviors such as telling sexual jokes in the office without respect for the opposite sex. Another type of sexual harassment engaged by bosses is offering promotions or money in exchange for sex.

Participants were asked why some women condone sexual harassment? The familiar answer was naivete and societal norm which glorifies men's sexual prowess. When asked to provide a profile of potential harasser, almost 51% of the participants agree that harassers were married, middle aged men. In addition, they were mostly supervisors of their units.

Notwithstanding that sexual harassment is rife in the workplace in Nigeria; victims of sexual harassment are very reluctant to file complaints. When asked why. Many of the participants are apprehensive of the outcome, or they say they are advised by their peers not to report because the authorities would not do anything. To reinforce their viewpoints, is the absence of any guidelines on sexual harassment in Nigeria (Ladebo, 2003).

One of the interviewees had this to say:

"These men are chasing women in the office; these women could be their daughters or granddaughters. This is very disgusting; it debases what women stand for in the work place. Women should be seen as equals in the workplace."

Coping mechanisms:

When participants were asked how they coped with sexual harassment. Participant's major coping mechanism included asking for transfer from their units, and avoidance. Some said they ignored the harasser completely. One of the participants reported that she would just say: Good morning and go about her business.

The other prevalent mechanism is to talk about the incident with their peers or friends. Some victims reported immediately. One victim reported that she held back for six month s because she was so traumatized and afraid to lose her job.

Sexual harassment has been recognized as a form of discrimination. What was once accepted as a normal part of women's experience in the workplace has now been labeled to be unlawful.


In order to combat this unwelcome sexual behavior we recommend the following:

1. Men should be educated on what constitutes sexual harassment. One way of doing this is to publicize cases of sexual harassment in order to alert the public that those who report are been taken seriously;

2. The federal government of Nigeria should come up with guidelines concerning sexual harassment in the workplace;

3. Proper reporting and procedures should be set up. Managers must be familiar with a policy's grievance procedures.

4. Notify all employees with posted statement that sexual harassment is illegal and will not be tolerated;

5. Establish lines of communications between the subordinates and their bosses, and make it mandatory that an open door policy exists for victims of sexual harassment cases;

6. Strong punitive action should be taken against those who engage in sexual harassment. The rationale for this is men can no longer behave in the workplace as they used to believe, when the domain used to be men's divide. Today, the landscape of the workplace has changed. As a consequence, men must change their pattern of behaviors to make working environment safe for both sexes; and

7. Counseling should be set up for victims and initiators of sexual harassment to discuss the problem, and this should involve experts in counseling sessions. (See Webb, 1991; Herbert, 1994 8c Zindi, 1994).

Future Research

The role of culture on sexual harassment should be the focus of future studies. The other area of interest should be the role of education, and how it would ameliorate sexual harassment in the workplace.


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Author affiliation:


Department of Government and History

Fayetteville State University

Fayetteville, North Carolina.

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