Forty percent of Israeli women have reported being sexually harassed at work, 43% of them in the past year, according to preliminary figures released Thursday from a survey by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry.

The survey revealed that 41% of Israeli women felt their workplace was not safe from sexual harassment. Three-quarters of the women who said they had been harassed, said the offender was a senior employee at the company, and 64% said the harassment had happened more than once.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, the ministry’s head of research and economics, Benny Pfefferman, said the figures had been compiled based on interviews with a representative sample of 1,000 women employees, across all the sectors of the workforce.

“The sample enabled us to examine all the fields of the economy and all sectors of the society. We interviewed teachers, farmers, public employees, retail workers, everyone. The unfortunate numbers we received represent the workforce as a whole,” said Pfefferman.

Pfefferman said the survey had been designed in partnership with nonprofit organizations active in the battle against sexual harassment in the workplace, and was meant to measure the scope of the phenomenon and map women’s attitude toward it.

“Another reason for the survey was to attempt to measure the economic influence of sexual harassment in the workplace on both the harassed individual and the company or organization she works in. By measuring things like lost workdays or reduced labor productivity, we can see how much sexual harassment actually costs the employers, as well as the Israeli economy as a whole,” said Pfefferman.

According to Pfefferman, the ministry decided to publish the preliminary figures before the completion of the study – an additional 1,000 women are still scheduled to be interviewed – in order to raise public debate on the issue and urge women to speak up about their own sexual harassment experiences.

“We want women to know that the government is working on finding ways to combat sexual harassment in the workplace so that they can feel confident enough to speak to us and help us create an accurate basis of information for future action,” said Pfefferman.

Michal Makov-Peled, an education director at the Jerusalem branch of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI), leads courses and seminars on how to create a harassment-free environment in the workplace.

In seminars with employees and managers, she stresses the importance of awareness of the problem and management responsiveness as key elements in a healthy work environment.

“Most of the time, these things don’t just suddenly happen. Rather, they are developed over time and shaped by the general environment in the workplace,” Makov-Peled told the Post on Thursday.

Makov-Peled said the cases of sexual harassment with which her organization dealt took place across the whole spectrum of the workforce, but were particularly common in workplaces with strict and formal hierarchies, like the military or military-like organizations.

“You are more likely to encounter sexual harassment in places like that than in a place like a school, where everyone is pretty much on equal standing except for the principal,” she said.

According to Makov-Peled, people often don’t take sexual harassment seriously enough and dismiss it as a minor disturbance.

“What they don’t understand is that sexual harassment can deeply affect a victim and that the harm extends to non-work-related parts of their lives. Victims go around carrying feelings of shame, guilt and helplessness, through no fault of their own, all because their boss or someone thought they could treat them badly,” she said.

“There are clear laws about sexual harassment, and it’s important that both employers and employees are aware of it,” said Makov-Peled. She suggested three basic things managers could do to help make sure their workplace was harassment-free.

“Awareness is the most important thing. If people know that sexual harassment is an issue that receives attention and that there’s someone whose job it is to oversee proper treatment of cases that come up, they will be less likely to offend. Talking about sexual harassment causes deterrence against offenders and [contributes] to the security of the workers,” said Makov-Peled.

The second key point, according to Makov-Peled, is setting boundaries: “By putting in place things like dress codes or designating separate bathrooms and ensuring that private meetings don’t take place in unprofessional conditions, companies and organizations can cut down the risks of sexual harassment.”

The third key point is that managers provide a personal example for proper behavior.

“If the boss behaves correctly and professionally and has zero tolerance for harassment, the message will reach the workers,” said Makov-Peled.

The full survey results will be presented at a special sexual harassment awareness day, which will be held at the Knesset on June 8.

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