Working without fear:
Results of the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey
- Back to Contents
- Chapter 1: Executive summary
- Chapter 2: Sexual harassment national telephone survey 2012
- Chapter 3: Sexual harassment
- Chapter 4: Prevalence
- Chapter 5: Nature and characteristics
- Chapter 6: Prevention and response
- How to make a complaint and get more information
- Appendix 1: 2012 National Survey questionnaire
The Australian Human Rights Commission (Commission) conducted a national telephone survey between May and August 2012 to investigate the prevalence, nature and reporting of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces over the past five years (2012 National Survey). This report outlines the findings of that survey and compares and contrasts the findings with previous surveys conducted by the Commission in 2003 (2003 National Survey)1 and 2008 (2008 National Survey).2
A number of positive stories have emerged from the 2012 National Survey.
For instance, where formal reports and complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace were made, they were resolved quickly (in less than one month) in most cases and with high or extremely high levels of satisfaction amongst the majority of complainants. In addition, a majority of individuals who have witnessed or subsequently learned about sexual harassment in their workplace (ie bystanders) have taken action to prevent or reduce the harm of the harassment. In taking such action, they have helped to ensure safe work environments for themselves and their colleagues.
Overall, however, the 2012 National Survey shows that sexual harassment is a persistent and pervasive problem in Australian workplaces. It also shows that limited progress has been made since the Commission conducted its 2008 National Survey. It is particularly concerning that there has been little reduction in the prevalence of sexual harassment since the 2008 National Survey.
Although sexual harassment affects a diverse range of individuals across a broad spectrum of occupations, workplaces and industries, the 2012 National Survey shows that targets of sexual harassment are most likely to be women and less than 40 years of age. Consistent with previous surveys, the 2012 National Survey also shows that the harassers are most likely to be male co-workers, though women were at least five times more likely than men to have been harassed by a boss or employer. Men harassing women accounted for more than half (56%) of all sexual harassment, while male harassment of men accounted for nearly a quarter (23%) of sexual harassment.
It is also concerning that there has been a significant increase in the number of people who have experienced negative consequences (eg victimisation) as a result of making a formal report or complaint of sexual harassment. Furthermore, understanding and reporting of sexual harassment remain low.
Sexual harassment is an ongoing and common occurrence, particularly in workplaces
Sexual harassment continues to affect more women than men
Awareness of sexual harassment remains limited
A number of bystanders are affected by sexual harassment in the workplace
Nature and characteristics
Sexual harassment consists of a broad range of behaviours and occurs through
a range of different mediums
Most sexual harassment was perpetrated by men against women
Men were more likely than women to perpetrate and be targets of same-sex sexual harassment
Young adults were most affected by sexual harassment
Harassers were most likely to be a co-worker of the person harassed
Prevention and response
The majority of people sexually harassed do not report it or seek support or advice
Reporting can be an effective and efficient way to stop sexual harassment and get other positive outcomes
More people experienced negative consequences as a result of reporting sexual harassment
A majority of bystanders took action to prevent or reduce the harm of sexual harassment
There have been a number of important developments in Australia since the first sexual harassment national telephone survey was conducted by the Commission in 2003, including amendments in 2011 to the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) to strengthen legal protections against sexual harassment. In addition, many workplaces have taken proactive steps to prevent and address sexual harassment, including by developing and implementing sexual harassment policies, procedures and employee training.
Whilst these developments are important and welcomed by the Commission, the findings of the 2012 National Survey are clear: real and meaningful change resulting in workplaces that are safe and free from harassment requires more than legislative change. It also requires leadership and a genuine commitment from government, unions and all sectors of the Australian workforce to put an end to sexual harassment and ensure the safety and security of all employees while at work.
The 2012 National Survey demonstrates the need for a number of key strategies to address sexual harassment in the workplace, including:
Effective prevention strategies, including a community education campaign
The 2012 National Survey demonstrates a clear need for effective prevention strategies to be implemented in Australian workplaces. Workplace prevention strategies must be framed broadly and incorporate components on the rights and responsibilities of employees and bystanders. They could include policies prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, training on sexual harassment (both upon commencement of employment and on a regular and ongoing basis), and widespread education about sexual harassment in the workplace and avenues of redress.
These strategies need to be grounded in a broader and highly visible community education campaign to improve awareness about sexual harassment and the right of employees not to be subjected to such treatment, particularly in the workplace.
Because experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace are extremely diverse, it is important that prevention strategies target all employees, across all levels. However, when developing and implementing those strategies, it is important for employers to consider specific groups who may be more vulnerable to sexual harassment and those groups of employees who may be more likely to engage in sexual harassment. Prevention strategies must cover the full range of behaviours that are likely to constitute unlawful sexual harassment. This includes sexual harassment that occurs through different mediums (eg in person, via mobile telephones, through email / the Internet and social media).
Improve access to workplace reporting mechanisms
The low rates of reporting suggest a need to improve access to reporting mechanisms. This will require steps to increase awareness within workplaces about the existence and potential benefits of using internal report and complaint mechanisms to address sexual harassment. At the same time, there is a need to ensure that appropriate mechanisms are put in place to protect against the negative consequences that may be experienced by targets and bystanders when they make a formal report or complaint about sexual harassment.
Equip workplace actors to provide effective support and advice
The 2012 National Survey shows that there is a need to ensure that a diverse range of workplace actors are trained to provide effective support and advice to individuals who may have experienced, or are experiencing, sexual harassment.
Encourage and empower bystanders to take action
The 2012 National Survey also shows that there is need to create an enabling environment to encourage and empower bystanders to take immediate and effective action to prevent and reduce the harm of sexual harassment. This will require the development and implementation of a range of strategies, including education and training on the different forms of bystander involvement, addressing the risks of victimisation to bystanders (eg in sexual harassment policies) and supporting bystanders who do take action to prevent or respond to sexual harassment.
Further industry-based research on sexual harassment
Further research is needed to understand the characteristics of workplaces in which sexual harassment is most likely to occur. Future waves of the survey should therefore be expanded to include a specific focus on select industries (eg financial services, mining and information technology).
There are significant risks for employers in not taking immediate and concrete action to bring about real and meaningful change resulting in workplaces that are safe and free from sexual harassment. The most immediate risks are to the physical and mental integrity of employees, both those who are sexually harassed (targets) and those who witness or subsequently learn about sexual harassment in the workplace (bystanders). There are also significant risks for business, including productivity losses or costs resulting from employee turnover, reduced morale and absenteeism, as well as potential legal action, injury to reputation and loss of shareholder confidence, as seen in recent high profile cases.