Prevent men’s violence against women

Opinion

Did you know: 1 in 3 Australians have experienced sexual harassment at work in the past 5 years?

One in three Australians have experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years. Let that sink in: statistically, a third of your colleagues have experienced sexual harassment at work.

These disturbing findings come from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Fourth National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. The survey provides insight into the scale and nature of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, and is particularly timely given the widespread attention the #MeToo movement has generated.

The survey showed that sexual harassment is widespread in Australia both inside and outside work. 72% of Australians have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, with women significantly more likely to have experienced sexual harassment than men. Concerningly, nearly a quarter of Australian women have experienced actual or attempted rape.

This broader societal issue is perpetuated in the workplace, with 1 in 3 Australians experiencing sexual harassment at work in the past five years. Women were more likely to have experienced sexual harassment at work (39%) than men (26%). For the majority of people who were sexually harassed at work this experience occurred on more than one occasion.

Some industries had higher rates of sexual harassment, with 81% of employees in the information, media and telecommunications industry experiencing sexual harassment in the past five years. Other industries with high rates included arts and recreation services; electricity, gas, water and waste services; and retail.

Workplace responses to sexual harassment

With such alarmingly high rates of sexual harassment in our workplaces, it’s imperative for workplaces to have a culture of zero tolerance of sexual harassment, and appropriate supports and procedures in place for people to report incidents. However, it seems that many workers are not comfortable reporting incidents to their management. Less than 1 in 5 people who experienced sexual harassment at work made a formal report or complaint, with most people refraining because they thought it would be seen as an overreaction or because it was easier to keep quiet.

When people did report incidents of sexual harassment, the responses were often inappropriate. 45% of people said no changes occurred at their workplace, and in 19% of cases there were no consequences for the perpetrator. People who reported put their own careers at risk and experienced negative consequences, with 19% labelled a troublemaker, 18% ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues, and 17% resigned.

It is critical that workplaces respond appropriately to reports of sexual harassment. The consequences of failing to do so can be significant. For example, in two cases in 2015 and 2016 employers were ordered to pay more than $300,000 to employees who experienced sexual harassment. Cases of sexual harassment are also a reputational risk for businesses, as demonstrated by many of the highly publicised #MeToo cases.

Preventing and responding to sexual harassment in the workplace

Human resources practitioners are increasingly recognizing the importance of having robust policies and procedures in place to address sexual harassment in the workplace. With the spotlight firmly on sexual harassment, taking steps to address it is not only the ethically right thing to do, but it has also become essential business practice. There are tools available to assist businesses to address sexual harassment, such as White Ribbon’s Workplace Accreditation Program which provides organisations with a holistic and structured approach. The Program guides workplaces to bring about cultural change to show zero tolerance for violence against women. Workplaces are equipped with the tools to assess the risk of violence (including sexual harassment) and to respond appropriately when incidents occur.

What’s next?

The results of the Fourth National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces clearly show that sexual harassment is a widespread and multifaceted issue in Australian workplaces. The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently conducting an inquiry into sexual harassment which is likely to recommend actions that employers should take.

Workplaces are critical sites for preventing and responding to sexual harassment. Bringing about the cultural change required to eliminate sexual harassment is a large and difficult task, but there are tools available to assist employers such as White Ribbon’s Workplace Accreditation Program. Australia’s high rates of sexual harassment in workplaces mean we all have a responsibility to stand up, speak out and act. Including employers.

Author Tali Slater is our Workplace Accreditation Program Officer.

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