IWD 2018: the facts about sexual harassment in the workplace

Kerrie-Anne Chinn, Content & Editorial Manager

As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, it’s a reminder to press forward and progress gender parity in the workplace. It’s also a reminder to make sure we continue challenging the issues of discrimination, bias, and sexual harassment.

Over the last twelve months, we’ve seen a lot of media focus and discussion around the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace.


During this time, many women have come forward to talk about their experiences. And we’ve seen a rise in global activism for women's equality, powered by worldwide movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp.

Today we want to present you with some clear facts about sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as important steps you can take to address this issue within your own sphere of influence.

How prevalent is sexual harassment in Australian workplaces?

Earlier this week, findings from the first ever survey of attitudes to work by Australian women were released to the public, highlighting the facts about sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Australian Women's Working Futures 2017 study, undertaken by researchers at the University of Sydney, has revealed “shocking” levels of sexual harassment within the workplace for Australian women, with one in ten women experiencing sexual harassment in their current jobs.

This figure is even higher for particular groups of women, with 16 per cent of women from ethnically or linguistically diverse backgrounds and 18 per cent of women with a disability reporting sexual harassment. And it's important to remember that these numbers only reflect those women who have reported experiencing sexual harassment – the statistics could actually be much higher, with many instances unreported.

The study also reported that “less than a third of Australian working women feel they are being treated equally” in the workplace. While just 31 per cent of women surveyed believed men and women were treated equally at work, 50 per cent of men felt there was equality in the workplace.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

Unfortunately, in 2018, some people are still unsure of what behaviours and actions constitute sexual harassment in the workplace.

They may think of sexual harassment purely in terms of unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate touching, however it can also encompass other more subtle forms of behaviour.

To clear this up: the Australian Human Rights Commission defines sexual harassment as “any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.” There are many ways that an individual can be made to feel uncomfortable or intimidated, without physical contact occurring. And they are all potentially damaging.

Unfortunately, in many workplaces, particularly male-dominated work environments, unacceptable actions or comments are often passed off as “jokes” or locker room talk, or just dismissed with a shrug and a “boys will be boys” attitude.

Regardless of whether someone is staring inappropriately, making sexually suggestive comments, telling inappropriate “jokes” or subjecting you to unwelcome physical contact – all of these examples are considered sexual harassment and are behaviours that are completely unacceptable in any work environment.

What can employers do to address sexual harassment?

The key to preventing sexual harassment from occurring within your organisation to have a clear policy on sexual harassment.

This policy must define what sexual harassment is, outlining unacceptable and inappropriate behaviours, as well as the consequences employees will face from those actions. You must make sure that your policy is compliant with all local, state and federal laws.

Developing and promoting this policy will make it clear to every employee that sexual harassment is 100% unacceptable in your organisation – at any time , whether during working hours or at any form of work-related training activities or functions. Get serious about cultivating a zero tolerance work culture, where sexual harassment is neither welcome nor tolerated.

In Australia, employers must create a safe and positive environment for their staff. This means that if you’re an employer or manager, you have a responsibility to look out for inappropriate conduct and to stop it right away. Make sure that you and other managers encourage the prompt reporting of incidents and always act immediately on any complaints that involve sexual harassment.

It’s also important to make sure employees are aware of their rights and are empowered with a clear idea of what constitutes sexual harassment, so they can feel confident in addressing and reporting it. 

What should I do if I see someone being harassed at work?

Even if you’re not in a management position, you have a responsibility to speak up when you see or hear something unacceptable in the workplace.

By speaking out against sexual harassment, and calling out inappropriate behaviour, you can challenge and change the dynamics in your own sphere of influence. You’ll also be encouraging other employees to do the same.

In group environments such as the workplace, sexual harassment can have an unfortunate cumulative effect on other staff who witness the behaviour, serving to reinforce and normalise negative male/female stereotypes – especially if the behaviour is not stopped.

Calling out sexual harassment in the workplace is everyone’s responsibility, so if you see someone being harassed, please have the courage to report it. Committing to progressive action will help women advance and progress towards gender parity in the workforce.

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