Sexual harassment still rife

Published 30 October 2012 13:47, Updated 31 October 2012 13:43

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Sexual harassment is widespread in workplaces, with just over one in five people over the age of 15 saying they’ve experienced it over the past five years.

These are the findings of a report released by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick called Working Without Fear. The report is based on the results of a recent sexual harassment national telephone survey of more than 2000 people.

It found the situation is worse for women than men, especially if the woman is aged under 40 – one in four women (25 per cent) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Conversely, one in six men (16 per cent) experienced it in the past five years.

“The survey shows that sexual harassment is not only widespread in Australian workplaces but that progress in addressing it has stalled,” Broderick says. “Women are at least five times more likely than men to have been harassed by a boss or employer.”

The most common types of incidents reported are sexually suggestive comments or offensive jokes (55 per cent), intrusive questions (50 per cent) and inappropriate staring or leering (31 per cent).

Most sexual harassment is perpetrated by men against women – nearly 79 per cent of harassers are men, a slight decrease from 2008 when the previous survey was conducted. And women and men aged 18 to 24 years are more likely to be the victims.

Harassers are most likely to be a co-worker (52 per cent), followed by their boss or employer (11 per cent) and their supervisor or manager (11 per cent).

Apart from progress on the problem stalling, the other concerning finding is that awareness and rates of reporting are not improving. “This has happened in spite of stronger legislative protections against sexual harassment and the steps taken by many Australian workplaces to prevent and address sexual harassment,” Broderick says.

Only one in five (20 per cent) who were sexually harassed made a formal report or complaint, a slight increase in the rate of reporting from 2008 (16 per cent). And almost half (45 per cent) indicated that the sexual harassment stopped after they made a formal report or complaint.

Broderick says the one positive finding was that people who witnessed or later became aware of sexual harassment would then work to prevent it – 13 per cent of the population aged 15 years and older are bystanders and most (51 per cent) have taken action to prevent or reduce the problem.

“Given that bystander intervention is a potentially invaluable component of sexual harassment prevention in the workplace, it is important that bystanders are supported and empowered to take action,” Broderick says. “This will require a substantial shift in organisational culture. We need to send a clear message that sexual harassment ruins lives, divides teams and damages the effectiveness of organisations.

“Eradicating sexual harassment from our workplaces will require leadership and a genuine commitment from everyone – government, employers, employer associations, unions and employees.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission conducted the telephone survey between May and August 2012.

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