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'20 Years On: The Challenges Continue
Sexual Harassment in the Australian Workplace'
The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) is
an independent statutory authority established under the Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 (Cth). It has a variety
of functions and powers to promote and protect the human rights of all
people in Australia. HREOC administers the Sex Discrimination Act
1984 (Cth) (SDA).
Sexual harassment is a legally recognised form of sex
discrimination. Sexual harassment in certain areas of public life is
unlawful under the SDA.
In 2003, HREOC undertook a review of the sexual harassment
in employment complaints finalised by the Commission in 2002. That review,
entitled A Bad Business: Review of sexual harassment in employment
complaints 2002 (A Bad Business) highlighted the continuing challenges
that sexual harassment presents, particularly for women in paid employment.
A national telephone survey 20 Years On: The Challenges
Continue ... Sexual Harassment in the Australian Workplace conducted
for HREOC by the Gallup Organization confirmed this finding. This is
the first such comprehensive national survey of sexual harassment undertaken
in Australia, with 1,006 interviewees randomly selected from the Australian
The survey found that 41 per cent of Australian women
aged between 18 and 64 years and 14 per cent of men have experienced
sexual harassment. Two-thirds of this sexual harassment occurs in the
workplace, with 28 per cent of Australian women and seven per cent of
Australian men having experienced sexual harassment at work.
The survey indicates that 14 per cent of Australians
have witnessed incidences of sexual harassment in the workplace in the
five years prior to the conduct of the survey. The vast majority of
these witnesses elected to take some action in relation to the incident,
from talking and offering advice to the target of the harassment, to
confronting the harasser.
Over half of the interviewees to the survey who were
sexually harassed at work experienced physical forms of sexually harassing
conduct, including unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering, kissing or
unnecessary familiarity. However, non-physical types of sexual harassment
were most frequently experienced (most interviewees experienced more
than one type of sexually harassing conduct), such as suggestive comments
or jokes, staring or leering, sexually explicit emails or SMS messages,
and sexually explicit pictures of posters.
Workplace sexual harassment is rarely a one-off incident.
Half of the experiences continued for up to six months, suggesting that
workplace sexual harassment may have a significant impact on an employee's
A significant proportion of the sexual harassment experienced
in the workplace is perceived as serious in nature, with half of the
survey interviewees rating the experience as very or extremely offensive.
As the general incidence rate indicates, sexual harassment
in the workplace predominantly affects women. The largest group affected
was women under the age of 45. Seven in 10 cases of sexual harassment
involved men harassing women.
Almost half of the harassers were co-workers of the
target, with over a third of harassers a person in authority in the
workplace in relation to the target. Of those harassed by someone in
authority the harasser was more likely to be male than female. Females
were more likely to harass co-workers than those under their supervision.
Less than one third of the sexual harassment experienced
is formally reported to either employers or external agencies such as
HREOC. Of the sexual harassment reported, most is reported to the target's
manager, supervisor, employer or boss. Only one per cent of workplace
sexual harassment is reported to anti-discrimination agencies such as
The main reasons for not reporting the sexual harassment
- a lack of faith in the formal complaints mechanism;
- a belief that the experience was not serious enough to warrant reporting; and
- the target dealing with the problem themselves.
At the same time, of those who did formally report the sexual
harassment experienced in the workplace, just under half were either
satisfied or very satisfied with the formal complaints mechanism, and
in most cases (59 per cent) action was taken against the harasser. This
suggests that employers may need to do more to promote the use of their
formal grievance procedures to overcome employees' reluctance to formally
Nevertheless, a significant number of formal complaints
were perceived to be handled badly, suggesting that some employers may
need to review and improve their grievance procedures.
The survey results of the telephone survey suggest
that the effectiveness of current employer policies to prevent and eliminate
sexual harassment in the workplace may vary considerably. Employers
may also need to review the effectiveness of their prevention policies
in light of the survey's results.
The persistent nature of sexual harassment in employment,
despite 20 years of legislation making such conduct unlawful, requires
on-going monitoring and vigilance in order to reduce its incidence.
The findings of the telephone survey and A Bad Business suggest
that employers, employer associations, unions, and anti-discrimination
agencies such as HREOC, must continue to focus on educating workplace
participants of their rights and responsibilities, take action to prevent
sexual harassment, and deal effectively and comprehensively with sexual
harassment when it does occur. The challenges continue . . .