Chapter 1 - Working without fear: Results of the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey (2012)

Working without fear:

Results of the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey



Chapter 1: Executive summary

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.

1.1 2012 National Survey key findings

Prevalence
Sexual harassment is an ongoing and common occurrence, particularly in workplaces
  • Just over one in five (21%) people in Australia has been sexually harassed since the age of 15, based on the legal definition of sexual harassment, a slight increase since 2008 (20%). A majority (68%) of those people were harassed in the workplace.
  • Just over one in five (21%) people aged 15 years and older has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years, based on the legal and behavioural definitions of sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment continues to affect more women than men
  • One-third of women (33%) have been sexually harassed since the age of 15, compared to fewer than one in ten (9%) men (based on the legal definition). This is consistent with the findings from the 2008 National Survey (women: 32%; men: 8%).
  • A quarter of women (25%) and one in six men (16%) aged 15 years and older have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years (based on the legal and behavioural definitions).
Awareness of sexual harassment remains limited
  • Almost one in five (18%) respondents indicated that they had not been sexually harassed based on the legal definition, but went on to report experiencing behaviours that are likely to constitute unlawful sexual harassment. This is slightly lower than in 2008 (22%).
A number of bystanders are affected by sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Thirteen per cent (13%) of the Australian population aged 15 years and older has witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace firsthand or been informed about it subsequently.

Nature and characteristics
Sexual harassment consists of a broad range of behaviours and occurs through
a range of different mediums
  • The most common types of behaviours reported were sexually suggestive comments or offensive jokes (55%), intrusive questions (50%) and inappropriate staring or leering (31%).
Most sexual harassment was perpetrated by men against women
  • Nearly four out of five (79%) harassers were men, a slight decrease from 2008 (81%).
  • Most women (90%) said that their harasser was male.
Men were more likely than women to perpetrate and be targets of same-sex sexual harassment
  • Twenty-nine per cent (29%) of sexual harassment was perpetrated by a person who is the same sex as the target. The majority of perpetrators of same-sex sexual harassment were men, with men comprising four in five (79%) perpetrators and women comprising only one in five (21%) perpetrators.
  • Being harassed by someone of the same sex is much more common for men (61%) than for women (10%).
Young adults were most affected by sexual harassment
  • Women and men aged 18 to 24 years were most likely to be sexually harassed (21%).
Harassers were most likely to be a co-worker of the person harassed
  • Harassers were most likely to be a co-worker (52%) of the person harassed, followed by their boss or employer (11%) and their supervisor or manager (11%).


Prevention and response
The majority of people sexually harassed do not report it or seek support or advice
  • Only one in five (20%) respondents who were sexually harassed made a formal report or complaint, a slight increase in the rate of reporting from 2008 (16%).
  • One-third (29%) of respondents who were sexually harassed sought support or advice, almost the same as in 2008 (30%).
Reporting can be an effective and efficient way to stop sexual harassment and get other positive outcomes
  • Almost half (45%) of respondents indicated that the sexual harassment stopped after they made a formal report or complaint.
  • The vast majority (74%) of respondents who made a formal report or complaint about sexual harassment were satisfied or extremely satisfied with the complaint process.
  • The overwhelming proportion (78%) of complaints were finalised in less than one month.
More people experienced negative consequences as a result of reporting sexual harassment
  • Nearly one-third (29%) of respondents who reported sexual harassment indicated that their complaint had a negative impact on them (eg victimisation, demotion). This is an increase from 2008 (22%) and 2003 (16%).
A majority of bystanders took action to prevent or reduce the harm of sexual harassment
  • Just over half (51%) of respondents took action after witnessing or learning about the sexual harassment of another person in their workplace.

 

1.2 Strategies for the future

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:
  • development and implementation of effective prevention strategies, including
    a highly visible community education campaign
  • adoption of measures to improve access to workplace reporting mechanisms
  • equipping a diverse range of workplace actors with the knowledge and skills necessary to provide effective support and advice to individuals who may have experienced, or are experiencing, sexual harassment
  • creation of an enabling environment to encourage and empower bystanders to take immediate and effective action to prevent and reduce the harm of sexual harassment
  • further industry-based research on sexual harassment.

 

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.

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