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Part 1: Sexual harassment: an overview

Encourage. Support. Act!

Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

1: Sexual harassment: an overview

1.1 Definitions of
sexual harassment

Many statutes around the world describe sexually harassment as conduct of a
sexual nature which is unwanted or unwelcome and which has the purpose or effect
of being intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) states

28 A Meaning of sexual harassment

(1) For the purposes of this Division, a person sexually harasses another
person (the person harassed) if:

(a) the person makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for
sexual favours, to the person harassed; or

(b) engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the
person harassed;

in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the
circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed
would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

(1A) For the purposes of subsection (1), the circumstances to be taken into
account include, but are not limited to, the following:

(a) the sex, age, marital status, sexual preference, religious belief, race,
colour, or national or ethnic origin, of the person harassed;

(b) the relationship between the person harassed and the person who made the
advance or request or who engaged in the conduct;

(c) any disability of the person harassed;

(d) any other relevant circumstance.

(2) In this section:

‘conduct of a sexual
nature’ includes making a statement of a sexual nature to a person, or in
the presence of a person, whether the statement is made orally or in writing.

Sexual harassment in Australia is also covered by state based
anti-discrimination legislation.

Legislation also frequently refers to vicarious liability, whereby
organisations may be held liable unless they can establish they took all
reasonable steps to prevent the conduct or that they promptly corrected the
behaviour after it became evident.

At an international level, sexual harassment has been recognised and
addressed by the International Labour Office, the International Confederation of
Free Trade Unions, the European Union and the United Nations Committee on the
Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Under the Convention on the
Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), sexual
harassment has been described as:

Sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as
physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography
and sexual demand, whether by words or actions. Such conduct can be humiliating
and may constitute a health and safety problem; it is discriminatory when the
woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage
her in connection with her employment, including recruitment or promotion, or
when it creates a hostile working

Organisations have responded to the problem of sexual harassment by producing
policies and collective agreement clauses, issuing guidance on complying with
laws, providing training and introducing complaints
procedures.[61] These legal and
organisational responses are crucial in the broader suite of attempts to prevent
sexual harassment and appropriately respond to it when it does occur. Yet sexual
harassment continues to be experienced by many women and some men in a variety
of organisational settings. However, like other forms of sexual violence such as
rape,[62] the problem often goes

1.2 Characteristics and
manifestations of sexual harassment

Behaviours that define sexual harassment are variously classified, but are
often noted to occur on a continuum, from physical forms which are generally
considered more serious, such as unwanted touching, sexual propositions and
sexual assault, to non-physical forms, which are often thought to be less
serious, such as the display of offensive materials, personal insults and
ridicule, leering, offensive comments and
gestures.[63] However, analogous to
research on domestic violence, psychological or emotional abuse may actually be
more harmful than physical
abuse.[64] Research is also
beginning to emerge on the growth in ‘cyber-sexual harassment’,
which involves the display of offensive and sexually explicit visual material
using distinct or new media such as the internet and mobile

In terms of who experiences and perpetrates sexual harassment, studies have
overwhelmingly demonstrated that most reports of victimisation are by women
against men; around 85 percent of complaints are filed by women and around 15
percent by men (where most perpetrators are
male).[66] Targets are often
vulnerable: divorced or separated women, young women, women with irregular or
precarious employment contracts, women in non-traditional jobs, women with
disabilities, lesbian women and women from culturally and linguistically diverse
communities, gay men and young

Sexual harassment is more common in some organisational contexts than others.
Cross-sectional and meta-analytic studies consistently demonstrate that
harassment is more prevalent in male-dominated occupations and work contexts
than in gender-balanced or female-dominated
workplaces.[68] Importantly however,
it is not the organisational sex-ratios of the workplace per se that is
associated with an increased likelihood of sexual harassment, but rather
organisational environments that are hierarchical, especially blue-collar,
male-dominated settings where cultural norms are associated with sexual bravado
and posturing and where the denigration of feminine behaviours is
sanctioned.[69] Similarly, research
has demonstrated that sexual harassment is more pervasive in organisations where
there is low sensitivity to the problem of balancing work and personal
obligations and where the culture is job- or performance-oriented rather than

It has been consistently demonstrated that targets of sexual harassment often
experience significant negative psychological, health and job-related
consequences ranging from anxiety to anger, powerlessness, humiliation,
depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, absenteeism, lower job
satisfaction, commitment and productivity and employment
withdrawal.[71] Sexual harassment is
also costly to organisations in terms of employee turnover, reduced morale,
absenteeism, the cost of investigations and those arising from legal actions,
damage to external reputation and loss of shareholder
confidence.[72] Furthermore, sexual
harassment is damaging to the broader economy because it undermines workplace
productivity, diminishes national competitiveness, stalls
development[73] and contributes to
women’s under-representation in the workplace. Research has shown that
closing the gap between male and female employment rates would have important
implications for the Australian economy, boosting GDP by an estimated 11

1.3 The overlap between
sexual harassment and other manifestations of gender inequality

Central to our framing of sexual harassment in this paper is how the nature
of the problem overlaps with other destructive workplace behaviours, including
general bullying, mobbing, racial harassment and sex-based harassment; the
latter which is characterised by verbal put-downs, abusive remarks and
marginalising behaviours on the basis of sex or
gender.[75] Shared features of these
workplace phenomena have rarely been explicitly contrasted or linked, but doing
so facilitates insights into organisational processes and dynamics and potential
solutions to workplace injustices that would not be possible with the use of a
singular focus on sexual harassment. These negative workplace behaviours have a
number of common elements, including:

  • ambiguity about whether the behaviours were intentional;
  • a violation of standards of workplace behaviour generally considered to be
  • a reduction in the quality of working life; and
  • an undermining of full and equal participation in

At the
core of all of these workplace phenomena are also hierarchical power relations.
Explanations of the way gendered forms of power manifest in organisations, in
the sense of enabling coercion and
exploitation,[77] has been at the
forefront of attempts to theorise different forms of workplace sexual
harassment. As its name suggests, sexual harassment has an explicitly sexual
dimension and is distinguished from harassment based on race or disability in
that the conduct is similar to other sexual behaviours and thus may be excused
as welcome attention.[78] Nonetheless, there is a blurring of different forms of destructive, gender-based
workplace conduct, all of which mark workplaces as masculinised spaces which
reinforce and perpetuate gendered forms of discrimination and harassment in
socially acceptable ways.[79]

Targets of sexual harassment frequently report experiencing multiple forms of
mistreatment, including non-sexualised
incivility,[80] reflecting a
blurring of overt sexualised behaviour at work on the one hand and less visible
misogyny on the other. However, this is in contrast to a widely-held view that
sexual harassment is confined to a pursuit of sexual expression and
gratification. This view has led to policies that focus on policing sexual
behaviour at work rather than more covert or less blatant acts that perpetuate
gender inequality.[81] As some
commentators have noted, a single, sexualised, blatantly lustful act, or
‘sledgehammer harassment’, may trump the mundane, ‘dripping
tap’ variety characterised by trivial put-downs, but the latter may reveal
more about gendered forms of discrimination and harassment than the
former.[82] Indeed, there is
evidence that corporate Australia is more committed to eliminating sexual
harassment specifically, than other, perhaps more subtle forms of sex
discrimination and gendered
mistreatment.[83] Compounding this
problem is the backlash against the supposed dominance of ‘political
correctness’, which is often used to dismiss or discredit the struggle for
equal rights for women broadly and to minimise and individualise sexual
harassment specifically.[84]

The majority of orthodox feminist theories guiding sexual harassment research
account for male to female sexual harassment and assume that both perpetrator
and target are heterosexual. However, sexual harassment is also reported by men
(both hetero- and homosexual) and lesbian women. For example, ABS data
documented that over a 12 month period, 19 percent of women and 12 percent of
men experienced some form of harassment (including such behaviours as obscene
phone calls, indecent exposure, inappropriate comments about their body or sex
life and unwanted sexual touching), while a secondary schools survey found that
physical and verbal harassment of boys, largely by other boys, is common in
schools.[85] Sexual harassment of
men is often structured by male-male hierarchies of
power.[86] In order to explain
sexual harassment from a sexual orientation perspective,
Epstein,[87] drawing on
Butler’s[88] notion of the
heterosexual matrix, suggests that sexual harassment against gay men and lesbian
women is ‘heterosexist’. That is, individuals are schooled into
gender-appropriate heterosexual sexuality which is subsequently rendered
compulsory through the punishment of deviance from heterosexual norms of
masculinity and prescribed feminine gender roles, via homophobic, antigay biases
and gender hostility.[89]

Sexual harassment is acknowledged here as a diverse form of gendered
mistreatment which reflects and reinforces inequalities between men and women at
work. This framing allows for the development of interventions which build on
existing strategies to address workplace sexual harassment, such as the Code of
Practice for Employers developed by the
Commission[90] and those which
address injustices in other areas and spheres of society, such as violence in
intimate or other familial relationships. Importantly, the paper also considers
how more generic explanations of workplace behaviours and processes might
translate to bystander intervention strategies which may help prevent, reduce
and remedy sexual harassment specifically, regardless of who is targeted or how
it manifests.

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