Sexual harassment in Australia

Date: 
Tuesday 16 April 2013

Despite being outlawed for over 25 years, sexual harassment remains a problem in our workplaces. In fact, nearly one in five complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) relate to sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment comes at a considerable cost, both to affected individuals and to business. It is important that employers take active steps to prevent sexual harassment and respond effectively when it occurs.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined in the Sex Discrimination Act as any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed in circumstances where a reasonable person would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

 

What is Commissioner Broderick doing about sexual harassment?

Tackling violence, harassment and bullying and building community understanding and respect for human rights are two of the Commission’s priority areas.

Sexual harassment is also one of Commissioner Broderick’s five priority areas for action, contained in her Gender Equality Blueprint 2010.

Sexual harassment prevalence surveys

Since 2002, the Commission has conducted national sexual harassment phone surveys every five years. The aim of these surveys is to provide robust evidence on the prevalence, nature and extent of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

2012 Sexual harassment national telephone survey

The Commission’s third sexual harassment survey, conducted in 2012, found that approximately one in five (21%) people over the age of 15 years experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous five year period.  It also found that sexual harassment continues to affect more women than men.  Thirty-three per cent (33%) of women have been sexually harassed since the age of 15, compared to fewer than 9% of men.

2008 Sexual harassment national telephone survey

The Commission’s second sexual harassment survey, conducted in 2008, found that 22% of females and 5% of males had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at some time, compared to 28% of females and 7% of males in 2003.

It also found a lack of understanding as to what sexual harassment is. Around one in five (22%) respondents who said they had not experienced ‘sexual harassment’1 then went on to report having experienced behaviours that may in fact amount to sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

In November 2008, Commissioner Broderick released Effectively preventing and responding to sexual harassment: A Code of Practice for Employers (2008 edition) as well as a Quick Guide to this publication. This replaces Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Code of Practice for Employers (2004).

2003 Sexual harassment national telephone survey

20 Years On: The Challenges Continue: Sexual Harassment in the Australian Workplace (2004) is an analysis of results from the first comprehensive national telephone survey on sexual harassment conducted for the Commission by the Gallup Organization.
 

Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

In July 2012 the Commission released a new research paper, Encourage. Support. Act!: Bystander approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace, which is a comprehensive examination of the way bystander intervention can be applied to addressing sexual harassment in workplaces.  Bystanders are individuals who observe sexual harassment firsthand, or are subsequently informed of the incident.

Written by Associate Professor Paula McDonald from QUT in Brisbane and Dr Michael Flood from the University of Wollongong, Encourage. Support. Act! examines the role bystander intervention strategies are already playing in other areas such as whistle blowing, racial harassment, workplace bullying and anti-violence.

Amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act

In June 2013, the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Act 2013 (Cth) extended the list of circumstances to be taken into account when assessing whether or not sexual harassment has occurred.  Specifically, the Act replaced “marital status, sexual preference” from the existing list of circumstances in section 28A(1A)(a) of the Sex Discrimination Act with the following circumstances: “sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status”.

The amendment to section 28A(1A)(a) recognises that a person’s “sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status” may influence whether or not a reasonable person “would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated”. 

Click here to read more about sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status discrimination.

In May 2011, the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Act 2011 (Cth) expanded the protections against sexual harassment. The amendments:

  • redefined sexual harassment to cover circumstances where a reasonable person would anticipate the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated by the conduct

  • strengthened protections against sexual harassment in workplaces and schools to protect students from sexual harassment regardless of their age and whether they are harassed by someone from their own educational institution or another educational institution

  • prohibited sexual harassment conducted through new technologies (eg over the internet, or through social media or texting).


The Sex Discrimination Legislation Amendment Act 2011 (Cth) adopted the majority of the recommendations on sexual harassment made by the Commission in its 2008 submission.  Two recommendations made by the Commission, but which were not adopted, were the general prohibition against sexual harassment in any area of public life, and the positive obligation on employers to take all reasonable steps to avoid sexual harassment in their workplace.
 

Media releases and speeches

Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, has released Working without fear: Results of the sexual harassment national telephone survey 2012

The Commission’s new research paper, Encourage. Support. Act!: Bystander approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace

Other Publications

Harsh Realities 1 (1999) and Harsh Realities 2 (2002) are an educative set of case studies and real-life experiences of sex discrimination (including sexual harassment) complaints conciliated by the Commission in 1999 and 2002, respectively.

Click here to order Commission publications.

 

 


[1] Based on being provided the definition of sexual harassment from the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).