UN surveys sexual harassment, union says problem is broader

Flags being prepared for a United Nations General Assembly General debate. Photo by: Kim Haughton / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — A United Nations survey looking at sexual harassment at the organization showed junior and temporary staff were particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, but the U.N. staff union said the problem was broader and management needed to address all forms of abuse of power in the multilateral organization.

“Often younger staff, those on less secure contracts, and so on, are regarded as more vulnerable, less likely to report, and so unfortunately those people are more likely to be targeted.”

— Laura Turquet, coordinator, U.N. Feminist Network

The U.N. “Safe Space Survey,” conducted by Deloitte, was hailed by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres as “the first of its kind.” But Ian Richards, president of the Coordinating Committee of International Staff Unions and Associations at the U.N., said it “missed an opportunity to get a full picture.”

“The survey was very useful and very important and it’s good that the U.N. management itself carried out the survey so they realized themselves what the scale of the situation is. Nevertheless, we’re still disappointed and had discussions with them right at the beginning, and we’re still disappointed that they chose to restrict it only to sexual harassment,” Richards said.

“What’s really important is looking at the whole spectrum of abuse of authority at the organization, and discrimination.”

The U.N. staff union released information from its own internal survey, which was conducted in November before the Deloitte survey. It examined multiple forms of abuse of power in addition to sexual harassment, including gender, race, age, nationality, and sexual orientation discrimination among other forms of harassment.

The staff union received 6,261 responses to its survey. The Deloitte survey captured responses from 30,364 staff and nonstaff personnel from 31 U.N. entities — a 17.1 percent response rate.

In a letter to staff, Guterres noted the low response rate, saying it demonstrated that the U.N. has a long way to go before the organization can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment, and that there may be “an ongoing sense of mistrust, perceptions of inaction and lack of accountability.”

The Deloitte survey report revealed that people with precarious job security were most likely to have the highest incidences of sexual harassment. Of junior professional officers and associate experts, 49.3 percent were likely to have experienced sexual harassment, while 39 percent of U.N. volunteers and 38.7 percent of consultants reported experiencing it.

"In some parts of the U.N., [consultants] make up quite an important part of the workforce. If you have a situation where managers know that they can get away with putting pressure, abusing their authority with certain personnel in terms of consultants, it allows them to get away with certain behaviors which they couldn’t do with normal staff,” Richards said. “That in itself creates a very bad workplace, a very toxic workplace.”

The Deloitte report said that “vulnerable targets” — women and transgender personnel, aged between 25-44, mainly junior professional officers and associate experts, U.N. volunteers, and consultants — require priority attention as the U.N. seeks to address sexual harassment issues, as do “potential harassers” which it qualified as “men aged between 45 and 54.”

“It is suggested that any in-progress initiatives relating to awareness raising and communication campaigns be adapted to take these groups into account,” the survey report recommended.

The U.N. Feminist Network, an informal network that strategizes how the U.N. system can better tackle the issue of sexual harassment, has engaged with senior leadership on the issue and was consulted on the Deloitte survey. Laura Turquet, coordinator of the network, welcomed the survey and the public disclosure of the results, but said none of the findings are very surprising.

“One of the things that we have been saying throughout is that it needs to be recognized that sexual harassment is about gendered power relations. Obviously, that’s about inequality of power between women and men, but it also manifests through different forms of difference and inequality,” Turquet said. “Often younger staff, those on less secure contracts, and so on, are regarded as more vulnerable, less likely to report, and so unfortunately those people are more likely to be targeted. It’s a sobering finding.”

According to the U.N. staff union survey, sexual harassment makes up only 16 percent of all forms of harassment and abuse of authority at the U.N. About 40 percent of respondents reported being discriminated against, with the highest percentage of those (42 percent) saying they were discriminated against because of their gender. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they had been victims of other forms of harassment, and 44 percent said they had experienced abuse of authority — 87 percent of which was by a supervisor.

The staff union survey also found a large number of complaints made were not investigated, and the majority of those that were, took more than six months to result in an investigation. Most said they were not kept informed of the status of such an investigation. Twenty percent of staff felt they were retaliated against for reporting misconduct.

Guterres encouraged U.N. staff to use the organization’s sexual harassment helpline, which provides information about protection, support, and reporting mechanisms.

“We must also do more to address the vulnerability of specific groups within the organization, including young people, junior staff, those who identify as LGBTQI, and short-term staff,” Guterres said in his letter to U.N. staff.

“The results confirm that this has a debilitating effect on staff morale and work performance, and that there are continued barriers to reporting, including fear of retaliation and a perception that perpetrators, for the most part, enjoy impunity.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.