Part 1: Sexual harassment: an overview

Encourage. Support. Act!

Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace



Part 1: Sexual harassment: an overview

1.1 Definitions of sexual harassment

Many statutes around the world describe sexually harassment as conduct of a sexual nature which is unwanted or unwelcome and which has the purpose or effect of being intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive.

The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) states

28 A Meaning of sexual harassment

(1) For the purposes of this Division, a person sexually harasses another person (the person harassed) if:

(a) the person makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, to the person harassed; or

(b) engages in other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the person harassed;

in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

(1A) For the purposes of subsection (1), the circumstances to be taken into account include, but are not limited to, the following:

(a) the sex, age, marital status, sexual preference, religious belief, race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, of the person harassed;

(b) the relationship between the person harassed and the person who made the advance or request or who engaged in the conduct;

(c) any disability of the person harassed;

(d) any other relevant circumstance.

(2) In this section:

‘conduct of a sexual nature’ includes making a statement of a sexual nature to a person, or in the presence of a person, whether the statement is made orally or in writing.

Sexual harassment in Australia is also covered by state based anti-discrimination legislation.

Legislation also frequently refers to vicarious liability, whereby organisations may be held liable unless they can establish they took all reasonable steps to prevent the conduct or that they promptly corrected the behaviour after it became evident.

At an international level, sexual harassment has been recognised and addressed by the International Labour Office, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the European Union and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), sexual harassment has been described as:

Sexual harassment includes such unwelcome sexually determined behaviour as physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demand, whether by words or actions. Such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem; it is discriminatory when the woman has reasonable grounds to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment, including recruitment or promotion, or when it creates a hostile working environment.[60]

Organisations have responded to the problem of sexual harassment by producing policies and collective agreement clauses, issuing guidance on complying with laws, providing training and introducing complaints procedures.[61] These legal and organisational responses are crucial in the broader suite of attempts to prevent sexual harassment and appropriately respond to it when it does occur. Yet sexual harassment continues to be experienced by many women and some men in a variety of organisational settings. However, like other forms of sexual violence such as rape,[62] the problem often goes unreported.

1.2 Characteristics and manifestations of sexual harassment

Behaviours that define sexual harassment are variously classified, but are often noted to occur on a continuum, from physical forms which are generally considered more serious, such as unwanted touching, sexual propositions and sexual assault, to non-physical forms, which are often thought to be less serious, such as the display of offensive materials, personal insults and ridicule, leering, offensive comments and gestures.[63] However, analogous to research on domestic violence, psychological or emotional abuse may actually be more harmful than physical abuse.[64] Research is also beginning to emerge on the growth in ‘cyber-sexual harassment’, which involves the display of offensive and sexually explicit visual material using distinct or new media such as the internet and mobile phones.[65]

In terms of who experiences and perpetrates sexual harassment, studies have overwhelmingly demonstrated that most reports of victimisation are by women against men; around 85 percent of complaints are filed by women and around 15 percent by men (where most perpetrators are male).[66] Targets are often vulnerable: divorced or separated women, young women, women with irregular or precarious employment contracts, women in non-traditional jobs, women with disabilities, lesbian women and women from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, gay men and young men.[67]

Sexual harassment is more common in some organisational contexts than others. Cross-sectional and meta-analytic studies consistently demonstrate that harassment is more prevalent in male-dominated occupations and work contexts than in gender-balanced or female-dominated workplaces.[68] Importantly however, it is not the organisational sex-ratios of the workplace per se that is associated with an increased likelihood of sexual harassment, but rather organisational environments that are hierarchical, especially blue-collar, male-dominated settings where cultural norms are associated with sexual bravado and posturing and where the denigration of feminine behaviours is sanctioned.[69] Similarly, research has demonstrated that sexual harassment is more pervasive in organisations where there is low sensitivity to the problem of balancing work and personal obligations and where the culture is job- or performance-oriented rather than employee-oriented.[70]

It has been consistently demonstrated that targets of sexual harassment often experience significant negative psychological, health and job-related consequences ranging from anxiety to anger, powerlessness, humiliation, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, absenteeism, lower job satisfaction, commitment and productivity and employment withdrawal.[71] Sexual harassment is also costly to organisations in terms of employee turnover, reduced morale, absenteeism, the cost of investigations and those arising from legal actions, damage to external reputation and loss of shareholder confidence.[72] Furthermore, sexual harassment is damaging to the broader economy because it undermines workplace productivity, diminishes national competitiveness, stalls development[73] and contributes to women’s under-representation in the workplace. Research has shown that closing the gap between male and female employment rates would have important implications for the Australian economy, boosting GDP by an estimated 11 percent.[74]

1.3 The overlap between sexual harassment and other manifestations of gender inequality

Central to our framing of sexual harassment in this paper is how the nature of the problem overlaps with other destructive workplace behaviours, including general bullying, mobbing, racial harassment and sex-based harassment; the latter which is characterised by verbal put-downs, abusive remarks and marginalising behaviours on the basis of sex or gender.[75] Shared features of these workplace phenomena have rarely been explicitly contrasted or linked, but doing so facilitates insights into organisational processes and dynamics and potential solutions to workplace injustices that would not be possible with the use of a singular focus on sexual harassment. These negative workplace behaviours have a number of common elements, including:

  • ambiguity about whether the behaviours were intentional;
  • a violation of standards of workplace behaviour generally considered to be ethical;
  • a reduction in the quality of working life; and
  • an undermining of full and equal participation in employment.[76]

At the core of all of these workplace phenomena are also hierarchical power relations. Explanations of the way gendered forms of power manifest in organisations, in the sense of enabling coercion and exploitation,[77] has been at the forefront of attempts to theorise different forms of workplace sexual harassment. As its name suggests, sexual harassment has an explicitly sexual dimension and is distinguished from harassment based on race or disability in that the conduct is similar to other sexual behaviours and thus may be excused as welcome attention.[78] Nonetheless, there is a blurring of different forms of destructive, gender-based workplace conduct, all of which mark workplaces as masculinised spaces which reinforce and perpetuate gendered forms of discrimination and harassment in socially acceptable ways.[79]

Targets of sexual harassment frequently report experiencing multiple forms of mistreatment, including non-sexualised incivility,[80] reflecting a blurring of overt sexualised behaviour at work on the one hand and less visible misogyny on the other. However, this is in contrast to a widely-held view that sexual harassment is confined to a pursuit of sexual expression and gratification. This view has led to policies that focus on policing sexual behaviour at work rather than more covert or less blatant acts that perpetuate gender inequality.[81] As some commentators have noted, a single, sexualised, blatantly lustful act, or ‘sledgehammer harassment’, may trump the mundane, ‘dripping tap’ variety characterised by trivial put-downs, but the latter may reveal more about gendered forms of discrimination and harassment than the former.[82] Indeed, there is evidence that corporate Australia is more committed to eliminating sexual harassment specifically, than other, perhaps more subtle forms of sex discrimination and gendered mistreatment.[83] Compounding this problem is the backlash against the supposed dominance of ‘political correctness’, which is often used to dismiss or discredit the struggle for equal rights for women broadly and to minimise and individualise sexual harassment specifically.[84]

The majority of orthodox feminist theories guiding sexual harassment research account for male to female sexual harassment and assume that both perpetrator and target are heterosexual. However, sexual harassment is also reported by men (both hetero- and homosexual) and lesbian women. For example, ABS data documented that over a 12 month period, 19 percent of women and 12 percent of men experienced some form of harassment (including such behaviours as obscene phone calls, indecent exposure, inappropriate comments about their body or sex life and unwanted sexual touching), while a secondary schools survey found that physical and verbal harassment of boys, largely by other boys, is common in schools.[85] Sexual harassment of men is often structured by male-male hierarchies of power.[86] In order to explain sexual harassment from a sexual orientation perspective, Epstein,[87] drawing on Butler’s[88] notion of the heterosexual matrix, suggests that sexual harassment against gay men and lesbian women is ‘heterosexist’. That is, individuals are schooled into gender-appropriate heterosexual sexuality which is subsequently rendered compulsory through the punishment of deviance from heterosexual norms of masculinity and prescribed feminine gender roles, via homophobic, antigay biases and gender hostility.[89]

Sexual harassment is acknowledged here as a diverse form of gendered mistreatment which reflects and reinforces inequalities between men and women at work. This framing allows for the development of interventions which build on existing strategies to address workplace sexual harassment, such as the Code of Practice for Employers developed by the Commission[90] and those which address injustices in other areas and spheres of society, such as violence in intimate or other familial relationships. Importantly, the paper also considers how more generic explanations of workplace behaviours and processes might translate to bystander intervention strategies which may help prevent, reduce and remedy sexual harassment specifically, regardless of who is targeted or how it manifests.


[60] Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, General Recommendation 19 (1992), para 18. At http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/recommendations/recomm.htm (viewed 23 May 2012).

[61] D McCann, Sexual harassment at work: National and international responses (2005).

[62] D Allen, ‘The reporting and underreporting of rape’, (2007) 73(3) Southern Economic Journal, pp. 623–641.

[63] L Bastian, A Lancaster and H Reyst, Department of Defense 1995 Sexual Harassment Survey (DMDC Report No. 96-014) (1996); Canadian Human Rights Commission, Discrimination and Harassment (2006). At http://www.chrc–ccdp.ca/discrimination/what_is_it–en.asp (Viewed 9 August 2008); M Gelfand, L Fitzgerald and F Drasgow , ‘The structure of sexual harassment: a confirmatory analysis across cultures and settings’ (1995) 47 Journal of Vocational Behavior, pp. 164-177.

[64] D Folingstad and D DeHart, ‘Defining psychological abuse of husbands towards wives: contexts, behaviours and typologies’ (2000) 15 Journal of Interpersonal Violence, pp. 891-920; A Street and I Arias, ‘Psychological abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder in battered women: examining the roles of shame and guilt’ (2001) 16(1) Violence and Victims, pp. 65-78.

[65] C Ronalds, Report of the Inquiry into Sexual Harassment and Sex Discrimination in the NSW Police, (2006).

[66] J Firestone and R Harris, ‘Perceptions of effectiveness of responses to sexual harassment in the US military, 1988 and 1995’ (2003) 10(1) Gender, Work & Organization, pp. 42–64; Australian Human Rights Commission (2004a). 20 Years On: The Challenge Continues – Sexual Harassment in the Australian Workplace; H Samuels, ‘Sexual harassment in the workplace: a feminist analysis of recent developments in the U.K’ (2003) 26(5) Women’s Studies International Forum, pp. 467-482; M Stockdale, M Visio and L Batra, ‘The sexual harassment of men: evidence for a broader theory of sexual harassment and sex discrimination’ (1999) 5(3) Psychology, Public Policy and Law, pp. 630–664.

[67] S Fredman, Women and the Law (1997); D McCann, Sexual Harassment at Work: National and International Responses (2005); P McDonald and K Dear, ‘Discrimination and harassment affecting working women: evidence from Australia’ (2008) 22(1) Women’s Studies Journal, pp. 37–48; D O’Neill and A Payne, ‘Opening Pandora’s box: ‘lifting the lid’ on sexual harassment and bullying and attempting to affect cultural change at the University of Technology, Sydney’. Paper presented at the Ethics and Equity: Revaluing Social Responsibility in Education Conference, Melbourne, November 19–22 (2007).

[68] J Gruber, ‘The impact of male work environments and organizational policies on women’s experiences of sexual harassment’ (1998) 12(3) Gender and Society, pp. 301-320; R Illies, N Hauserman, S Schwochau and J Stibal, ‘Reported incidence rates of work-related sexual harassment in the United States: using meta-analysis to explain reported rate disparities’ (2003) 56(3) Personnel Psychology, pp. 607-618; M McCabe and L Hardman, ‘Attitudes and perceptions of workers to sexual harassment’ (2005) 145(6) The Journal of Social Psychology, pp. 719–740; C Willness, P Steel and K Lee, ‘A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment’ (2007) 60(1) Personnel Psychology, pp. 127-162.

[69] L Chamberlain, M Crowley, D Tope and R Hodson, ‘Sexual harassment in organizational context.’ (2008) 35(3) Work and Occupations, pp. 262-295; S De Haas and G Timmerman, ‘Sexual harassment in the context of double male dominance’ (2010) European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1st March.

[70] J Handy, ‘Sexual harassment in small-town New Zealand: a qualitative study of three contrasting organizations’ (2006) 13(1) Gender, Work & Organization, pp. 1-24; G Timmerman and C Bajema, ‘Incidence and methodology in sexual harassment research in northwest Europe’ (1999) 22(6) Women’s Studies International Forum, pp. 673–681.

[71] M Bergman, R Langhout, P Palmieri, L Cortina and L Fitzgerald, ‘The (un)reasonableness of reporting: antecedents and consequences of reporting sexual harassment’ (2002) 87 Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 230-242; D Chan, B Chun, S Chow and S Cheung, ‘Examining the job-related, psychological and physical outcomes of workplace sexual harassment: a meta-analytic review’ (2008) 32 Psychology of Women Quarterly, pp. 362-376; S Charlesworth, ‘A snapshot of sex discrimination in employment: disputes and understandings’ in S Charlesworth, K Douglas, M Fastenau, & S Cartwright (eds), Women and Work 2005: Current RMIT University Research (2006), pp. 81–98; D Crocker and V Kalembra, ‘The incidence and impact of women’s experiences of sexual harassment in Canadian workplaces’ (1999) 36(4) The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, pp. 541-559; L Fitzgerald, F Drasgow, C Hulin, M Gelfand and V Magley, ‘Antecedents and consequences of sexual harassment in organizations: a test of an integrated model’ (1997) 82(4) Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 578-589; L Fitzgerald, F Drasgow and V Magley, ‘Sexual harassment in the armed forces: a test of an integrated model’ (1999) 11(3) Military Psychology, pp. 329-343; P Hayes, Taking it seriously: Contemporary experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace, Research Report (2003/2004); Australian Human Rights Commission, 20 Years On: The Challenge Continues – Sexual Harassment in the Australian Workplace (2004); V Magley, C Hulin, L Fitzgerald and M DeNardo, ‘Outcomes of self–labeling sexual harassment’ (1999) 84(3) Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 390–402; M Stockdale, ‘The direct and moderating influences of sexual harassment pervasiveness, coping strategies and gender on work-related outcomes’ (1998) 22 Psychology of Women Quarterly, pp. 379-392; C Willness, P Steel and K Lee, ‘A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment’ (2007) 60(1) Personnel Psychology, pp. 127-162.

[72] L Fitzgerald, F Drasgow, C Hulin, M Gelfand and V Magley, ‘Antecedents and consequences of sexual harassment in organizations: a test of an integrated model’ (1997) 82(4) Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 578-589; Australian Human Rights Commission, Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: A Code of Practice for Employers (2004); M Lengnick-Hall, ‘Sexual harassment research: a methodological critique’ (1995) 48 Personnel Psychology, pp. 841-864.

[73] A Cruz and S Klinger, Gender-based violence in the world of work: overview and selected annotated bibliography, Working Paper 3 (2011). At http://www.ilo.org/gender/Informationresources/lang--en/docName--WCMS_155763/index.htm (Viewed 10 August, 2011).

[74] Goldman Sachs, Australia’s hidden resource: The economic case for increasing female participation. (2009). At http://www.eowa.gov.au/Pay_Equity/Files/Australias_hidden_resource.pdf.

[75] M Thornton, ‘Sexual harassment losing sight of sex discrimination’ (2002) 26(2) Melbourne University Law Review, pp. 422–444; K Zippel,The Politics of Sexual Harassment: A Comparative Study of the United States, the European Union and Germany (2006).

[76] S Fredman, Women and the law (1997); D McCann, Sexual Harassment at Work: National and International Responses (2005); P McDonald, ‘Workplace sexual harassment 30 years on: a review of the literature’ (2011, in press) International Journal of Management Reviews; P Popovich and M Warren, ‘The role of power in sexual harassment as a counterproductive behavior in organizations’ (2010) 20 Human Resource Management Review, pp. 45-53.

[77] C MacKinnon, The Sexual Harassment of Working Women (1979); S Zalk, ‘Men in the Academy: A Psychological Profile of Harassment’ in M Paludi (ed), Ivory Power: Sexual Harassment on Campus (1990), pp. 141-175.

[78] H Samuels, ‘Sexual harassment in the workplace: a feminist analysis of recent developments in the U.K’ (2003) 26(5) Women’s Studies International Forum, pp. 467-482.

[79] J Cleveland, T Vescio and J Barnes-Farrell, ‘Gender discrimination in organizations’ in R Dipboye & A Colella (eds), Discrimination at Work. The Psychological and Organizational Bases (2005), pp. 425-462; M Thornton, ‘Sexual harassment losing sight of sex discrimination’ (2002) 26(2) Melbourne University Law Review, pp. 422–444.

[80] S Lim and L Cortina, ‘Interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace: the interface and impact of general incivility and sexual harassment’ (2005) 90 Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 483-496.

[81] J Berdahl, ‘The sexual harassment of uppity women’ (2007) 92(2) Journal of Applied Psychology, pp. 425-437; C Williams, P Giuffre and K Dellinger, ‘Sexuality in the workplace: organizational control, sexual harassment and the pursuit of pleasure’ (1999) 25 Annual Review of Sociology, pp. 73-93.

[82] M Thornton, ‘Sexual harassment losing sight of sex discrimination’ (2002) 26(2) Melbourne University Law Review, pp. 422–444; S Wise and L Stanley, Georgie Porgie: Sexual Harassment in Everyday Life (1987).

[83] L Still, Glass Floors and Sticky Ceilings: Barriers to the Careers of Women in the Australian Finance Industry (1997).

[84] P Hayes, Taking it Seriously: Contemporary Experiences of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, Research Report (2003/2004); L Mahood and B Littlewood, ‘Daughters in Danger: The Case of Campus Sex Crimes’ in A Thomas & C Kitzinger (eds) Sexual harassment: Contemporary feminist perspectives (1997).

[85] C Collins, M Batten, J Ainley and C Getty, Gender and School Education (1996).

[86] D Lee, ‘Hegemonic masculinity and male feminisation: the sexual harassment of men at work’ (2000) 9(2) Journal of Gender Studies, pp. 141-153; R L Toker, ‘Multiple masculinities: a new vision for same-sex harassment law’ (1999) 34 Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review, pp. 1-25.

[87] D Epstein, ‘Keeping them in their place: hetero / sexist harassment, gender and the enforcement of heterosexuality’ in A Thomas & C Kitzinger (eds), Sexual Harassment: Contemporary Feminist Perspectives (1998), p. 158.

[88] J Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990).

[89] D Brogan, E Frank, L Elon, P Sivanesan and K O’Hanlan, ‘Harassment of lesbians as medical students and physicians’ (1999) 282 Journal of the American Medical Association, pp. 1290-1292; J Pryor and N Whalen, ‘A Typology of Sexual Harassment: Characteristics of Harassers and the Social Circumstances under which Sexual Harassment Occurs’ in W O’Donohue (ed), Sexual Harassment: Theory, Research and Treatment (1997), pp. 129-151.

[90] Australian Human Rights Commission, Sexual Harassment: Serious Business. Results of the 2008 Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey (2008).