The Australian Human Rights Commission has released the report Respect@Work, which finds that sexual harassment is prevalent and pervasive in the workplaces of Australia, and offers a comprehensive plan for reform.

Respect@Work was launched by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins on 6 March after an 18-month national inquiry, which examined the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. The report draws on evidence provided by 10,000 Australians who participated in the 2018 national survey Everyone’s Business, plus 460 submissions and 60 public consultations with more than 600 people. The survey found that two in five women (39%) and one in four men (26%) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years.

What are the drivers of sexual harassment?

The Inquiry found that power disparities in society, as well as in the workplace, enable sexual harassment. Gender inequality is the key power disparity that drives sexual harassment, but other forms of discrimination and harassment, based on factors such as race, disability or sexuality, create workplace power imbalances as well. Several other factors were raised in Inquiry consultations and submissions, including the culture of a workplace and the role of leadership in setting that culture; a lack of understanding about what constitutes sexual harassment; and the use of alcohol in a work context.

What constitutes sexual harassment?

The Everyone’s Business survey identified a number of different types of sexually harassing behaviour including:

  • verbal forms of sexual harassment, such as sexually suggestive comments or jokes, intrusive questions about private life or physical appearance, repeated invitations to go on dates, or requests or pressure for sex;
  • sexually explicit pictures, posters or gifts;
  • intimidating or threatening behaviours such as inappropriate staring or leering, sexual gestures, indecent exposure, or being followed, watched or someone loitering nearby;
  • inappropriate physical contact, such as unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing, or actual or attempted rape or sexual assault; and
  • sexual harassment involving the use of technology, including sexually explicit emails, SMS or social media, indecent phone calls, repeated or inappropriate advances online, or sharing or threatening to share intimate images or film without consent.
Who experiences sexual harassment?

It’s clear from the survey data that women experience sexual harassment at higher rates than men. However, there are factors other than gender that may increase the likelihood of someone being sexually harassed at work. Workers who may be more vulnerable include:

  • young workers aged less than 30 years
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex (LGBTQI) workers
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander workers
  • workers with disability
  • workers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds
  • migrant workers or workers holding temporary visas
  • people in working arrangements described as ‘precarious’ or ‘insecure’.
What are the impacts?

Each case of workplace sexual harassment can have long-term and devastating impacts on individuals, including detrimental effects on health and wellbeing, negative impacts on daily work tasks as well as future career progression, and significant financial consequences. Individuals can be impacted personally in multiple ways, but the effects can also flow through to family, friends, bystanders and co-workers.

Workplace sexual harassment can also impose a cost for employers through lost workplace productivity; staff turnover; negatively impacted workplace culture; the resources required for complaints, litigation and workers’ compensation; and reputational damage.

Recommendations for change

Respect@Work brings together 55 recommendations, which are focused on five key areas:

  • data and research to deliver useful industry-based information about the nature of sexual harassment and effectiveness of actions;
  • primary prevention through education, media and community-wide initiatives;
  • a refocused legal and regulatory framework, which recognises the mutually reinforcing roles of workplace, safety and human rights laws;
  • better workplace prevention and responses, which are leader-driven, victim-centred, practical and adaptable; and
  • better support, advice and advocacy for people who experience sexual harassment

The Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020) is available in full on the Human Rights Commission website.