Sexual harassment, a definition

Sexual harassment refers to all comments or actions of a sexual nature or other behavior related to a person’s gender that are unwanted by the person to whom they are directed, and which adversely affect their well-being. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination (defined in Article 4 of the Swiss Federal Act on Gender Equality).

It is important to highlight that sexual harassment is characterized not by the intention of the acting person, but rather by the way the targeted person perceives, receives or feels about this behavior. As such, even if an individual is neither aware nor deliberately attempting to inconvenience another person through their inappropriate sexual language or attitudes, sexual harassment may still occur.

Sexual harassment can occur independently of hierarchical relationships: it may come from an immediate superior, subordinates, work colleagues, students or any other person with whom an individual may be required to work or collaborate.

Sexual harassment can take forms such as:

  • Indecent or embarrassing remarks about a person's physical appearance
  • Sexist remarks or jokes about a person's sexual characteristics, sexual behavior or sexual orientation
  • Posting or displaying pornographic material
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Unwelcome physical contact
  • Unwelcome pursuit behaviors (e.g. following colleagues inside or outside EPFL)
  • Sexual advances with promises of rewards or threats of retaliation
  • Sexual assault, sexual coercion, attempted rape or rape

Legislation protecting employees against sexual harassment covers actions that take place at the workplace as well as those that are associated with work (for example, during celebrations, conferences or events). This includes electronic exchanges and telephone calls made in private (to the extent that it affects the situation at work) or in a professional capacity.

Flirting or harassment?

Flirting is part of life; this is also the case at EPFL. It is therefore important to distinguish harassment from flirtation. The purpose of sexual harassment is to establish a relationship of power and domination. Flirting is distinguished from harassment by the following aspects:

Further information – Switzerland

Further information

  • Responding to Hostile Behaviors, Science Education Resource Center (CERC), Carleton College, last modified: December, 2018.
  • Sexual Harassment of Women, Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Consensus Study Report, published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018.
  • Changing the culture, Report by the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students, 2016.