Sexual Harassment in France and the U.S.A.

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Organizational behavior project:

Sexual harassment in France and USA


Since 1992, French Law considers sexual harassment as a juridical category, whereas the United States already had formulated a juridical definition in the middle of the 1970’s. Despite the numerous political controversies it implied, this subject is fascinating in a sociological point of view, precisely because it illustrates cultural differences between western countries like the USA and France, but also because it overturned previous configurations of gender and sexuality. Sexual harassment has become a real issue since women entered the labor market; that’s why it is not surprising if it had had an impact on firms’ policies, and more precisely on their organizational behavior strategies and rules. The United States and France deal with sexual harassment differently. Of course cultural background is a first explanation to these differences, but it is not the only one. The interaction between institutions (juridical system, media, and firms) and social actors (feminist associations, politicians, trade-unions, journalists, etc.) is particularly consequent in both countries’ definition of sexual harassment. Another factor that reinforces those differences is simply the fact that each country criticizes the other: Americans talk about the “permissive” French, whereas French use the adjective “puritan” to point the Americans’ obsession with sexual harassment –which is not true anymore. A lot of things have changed since sexual harassment has been defined: that is why we are going to develop the subject, so that prejudices disappear.

I. Differences between American and French conceptions of sexual harassment

1) Definitions of sexual harassment in laws in the workplace: two opposites

Studying France and the United States cases is particularly interesting since their definitions of sexual harassment in laws in the workplace represent two opposite extremes. In its EEOC (The Equal Employment Opportunity commission) guidelines, the US has adapted one of the most “inclusive” definitions of sexual harassment, describing it as “any conduct of sexual nature” that implies an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment”. In France, sexual harassment has a more “restrictive” definition: it refers to situations of “power abuse” coming from hierarchical relationships. The typical example is a superior who abuses his official power, using his authority in order to obtain sexual favors from a person. Here the EEOC describes the context in which we can recognize a behavior as sexual harassment:

In the United States, sexual harassment is seen as discrimination related to gender in the labor market context. Americans have prohibited sexual harassment not because it’s a form of deviant sexuality but because it compromises women’s employment opportunities. In France, they consider sexual harassment as an attack, a sexual violence, often linked with hierarchical relations. French statistics find 62% of verbal sexual harassment at work, 30.1% physical, and 7.9% non verbal (in the early 2000’s). There, sexual harassment is considered as a misdemeanor, called “délit” in France, and not seen automatically as a sexual discrimination.

In order to understand these different conceptions, we have to analyze those ubiquitous influences that we often forget: Medias, associations, firms, legislative institutions, etc.

2) Influences of institutions and different actors in the conception of sexual harassment

* Legal devices

In the US, with the importance of jurisprudence in laws’ articulations, but also with the growing legal device that defends discriminated groups’ rights, social movements have risen. Indeed, feminist demonstrations wanted the tribunals to denounce sexual harassment, referring to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This framing had been all the more efficient than it fitted with beliefs –known as...
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