International Women’s Day 2020: Close to three in ten men say sexual jokes or stories at work are acceptable

A new survey of more than 20,000 people in 27 countries from Ipsos MORI and King's College London for International Women's Day 2020 finds significant differences in what women and men see as acceptable workplace behaviour.

The author(s)

  • Kelly Beaver Managing Director, Public Affairs
  • Kully Kaur-Ballagan Public Affairs
  • Suzanne Hall Public Affairs
  • Maelys Bablon Public Affairs
  • Cameron Garrett Public Affairs
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Nearly three in ten men (28%) around the world think it’s acceptable to tell jokes or stories of a sexual nature at work, according to a new global survey to mark International Women’s Day.

The proportion of men in Britain who hold this view is the same as the global average. British men are much more accepting of such behaviour than their counterparts in countries including Turkey, Australia, Canada (18%), the US and Mexico.

By contrast, only 16% of women globally and in Britain say such jokes or stories are acceptable.

The survey of over 20,000 people in 27 countries was carried out by Ipsos MORI and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London. It reveals attitudes towards workplaces that many would regard as toxic or at the very least not female-friendly, which have been shown to hold women back in their careers.

The survey finds significant differences in what women and men see as acceptable workplace behaviour, reveals where sexism is most likely to be challenged, and looks at whose careers are most likely to be affected by certain choices and responsibilities.

Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia and Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, said:

The workplace is one of the most important battlegrounds in the fight for equality between women and men, and these findings show we still have some way to go. While those who help fuel toxic work environments are in the minority, it’s nonetheless a significant one – and their views can make people’s working lives a misery. If employers want to pay more than just lip service to gender equality, they need to invest in creating cultures that value diversity and inspire respect for all.

What is acceptable at work?

Displaying sexual material

GB findings

  • In Britain, one in 10 men (9%) think it’s acceptable to display material of a sexual nature at work, more than twice the 4% of women who say this is acceptable.

Global findings

  • Globally, this rises to more than one in eight men (13%) who say displaying sexual content at work is acceptable, almost double the proportion of women (7%) who think the same.
  • Men in China are by far the most likely to say this is OK, with nearly a third (32%) seeing it as acceptable. Nearly a quarter of women (23%) in India say the same – the most of any country polled.

Asking a colleague for a date even when they’ve said no

GB findings

  • Of all the countries polled, men (7%) and women (4%) in Britain are least likely to say it’s acceptable to continue to ask a colleague for a date when they’ve already said no.

Global findings

  • But around the world, a higher proportion – more than one in six men (15%) – say this is acceptable, compared with nearly one in 10 women (9%) who hold this view.
  • People in Malaysia (29%) and India (26%) are most likely to think this is OK, while China has the biggest gender divide in opinion, with 30% of men saying it’s acceptable compared with 15% of women.

Asking a colleague for a date

GB findings

  • While people in Britain have fewer concerns about simply asking a colleague for a date, there is still a marked gender divide in opinion: nearly two in five (38%) women think asking a colleague for a date is acceptable, compared with half of all men (51%).

Global findings

  • Globally, 52% of men and 41% of women say it’s acceptable to ask a colleague for a date. Men (37%) and women (19%) in the US are least likely to think this is acceptable.

What is acceptable behaviour in the workplace? | Ipsos MORI | International Women's Day

Who calls out inappropriate behaviour?

GB findings

  • Men (58%) are more likely than women (48%) to say they would be confident to tell off a senior colleague for making a sexist comment. But 69% of both genders say they would be comfortable in telling off a junior colleague for such a comment.
  • Of the 26 countries surveyed, Britons feel most confident (78%) in telling off a family member or friend for making a sexist comment. Women also feel more confident (84%) than men (73%) in doing so, a reversal of the situation at work.
  • In Britain, men (63%) are more likely than women (48%) to say they would feel confident confronting a man who is harassing a woman in public.

Global findings

  • People in Sweden (69%), South Africa (68%) and Spain (63%) are most likely to say they would feel confident in telling off a senior colleague who makes a sexist comment, while people in Japan (31%), Poland (32%) and France (38%) are least likely.
  • 71% of Russians say they would feel confident confronting a man who is harassing a woman in a public place, while at the other end of the spectrum, 29% of people in Japan and 31% of those in South Korea say the same.

Calling out  inappropriate behaviour | Ipsos MORI | International Women's Day

What disproportionately harms women’s careers?

GB findings

People in Britain think women’s careers are much more likely to be damaged than men’s because of certain choices or responsibilities.

  • Nearly a third (32%) think rejecting a colleague who wanted a date or romantic relationship is more likely to damage the career of a woman, compared with just 5% who say a man’s career is more likely to be damaged.
  • Close to one in five (17%) think a woman who talks about her family life is more likely to have her career harmed – more than four times as many as those who think a man’s career is more likely to suffer (4%).
  • People are twice as likely to think that women’s careers will be harmed (16%) than men’s (7%) for being unable or unwilling to socialise with colleagues outside of working hours.
  • Britons are more than three times as likely to think a woman’s career would be more impacted (27%) than a man’s (8%) for working part-time.

Global findings

Globally, people predict less of a gender divide in the way such choices or responsibilities might harm a woman’s or a man’s career. However, for some issues, there remains a split:

  • 26% say rejecting a colleague who wanted a date or romantic relationship is more likely to damage the career of a woman, compared with 7% who say a man’s career is more likely to harmed.
  • 14% think a woman who talks about her family life is more likely to have her career harmed – more than twice as many as those who think a man’s career is more likely impacted for doing the same (6%).
  • 25% think prioritising family over work is more likely to harm a woman’s career, while 9% think a man’s career is more likely to be harmed.

What harms women’s careers? | Ipsos MORI | International Women's Day 2020

Kelly Beaver, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Public Affairs, said:

International Women’s Day is a great reminder each year to think about where we are headed, and how far we have come, in the fight for gender equality.  Our new research shows that we still have a way to go when it comes to levelling the playing field, especially in the workplace.  Our data shows that people feel women’s careers are significantly more at risk then men’s if they turn down a romantic advance, if they talk about their family life or don’t take part in social activities with colleagues.  However, there are some real positives coming through from the data, such as over half of men feeling confident to call people out if they make sexist comments.
Equality won’t happen without both men and women making changes and in the world of work, which is still dominated by men, we need more men to start prioritising equality and making a stand when required.

Kully Kaur-Ballagan, Research Director at Ipsos MORI said

This research illustrates how far we still have to go to gain equality in the workplace and what is clear is that women cannot do it on their own. We need men to take action and for employers to support women who want to take on leadership roles.

Technical details

These are the findings of a survey conducted in 27 countries via Global Advisor, the online survey platform of Ipsos, between 24 January - 7 February 2020.

For this survey, Ipsos interviewed a total of 20,204 adults aged:

  • 16-74 in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Sweden;
  • 18-74 in Canada, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States of America;
  • 19-74 in South Korea;

The sample consists of 1,000+ individuals in each of Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the U.S., and of 500+ individuals in each of the other countries surveyed.  The data is weighted so each country’s sample composition best reflects the demographic profile of its adult population according to the most recent census data, and to give each country an equal weight in the total “global” sample.

Online surveys can be taken as representative of the general working-age population in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United States. Online samples in other countries surveyed are more urban, more educated and/or more affluent than the general population and the results should be viewed as reflecting the views of a more “connected” population.

Sample surveys and polls may be subject to other sources of error, including, but not limited to coverage error, and measurement error. The precision of online surveys conducted on Global Advisor is measured using a Bayesian Credibility Interval. Here, the poll has a credibility interval of +/-3.5 percentage points for countries where the sample is 1,000+ and +/- 4.8 points for countries where the sample is 500+.

The author(s)

  • Kelly Beaver Managing Director, Public Affairs
  • Kully Kaur-Ballagan Public Affairs
  • Suzanne Hall Public Affairs
  • Maelys Bablon Public Affairs
  • Cameron Garrett Public Affairs

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