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20 years of tracking sexual harassment at work shows little improvement. But that could be about to change

  • Written by Lisa Heap, Doctoral Researcher, RMIT University
20 years of tracking sexual harassment at work shows little improvement. But that could be about to change

The fifth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, published today, shows little has changed since the last survey in 2018 – or indeed since the first survey in 2003.

It points to the importance of the legislative changes being pursued by the Albanese government, including reforms that passed parliament on Monday.

The survey of 10,000 Australians[1] was commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission and conducted by Roy Morgan Research in August and September. It shows 33% of workers were sexually harassed at work in the previous five years – 41% of women and 26% of men.

This compares with 39% of women and 26% of men in 2018[2], and with 15% of women and 6% of men in 2003[3] (though these results cannot be easily compared with the latest figures due to changes in survey methodology).

The most common form of sexually harassment were:

  • comments or jokes (40% of women, 14% of men)
  • intrusive questions about one’s private life or appearance (32% of women, 14% of men)
  • inappropriate staring (30% of women, 8% of men)
  • unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing (28% of women, 10% of men)
  • inappropriate physical contact (26% of women, 11% of men).

Men were responsible for 91% of harassment of women, and 55% of harassment of men.

Most of those harassed said their harasser also sexually harassed another employee. Just 18% formally reported the harassment. Of those, only 28% said the harassment stopped as a result, while 24% said their harasser faced no consequences.

Slow work on reforms

These results highlight the importance of the reforms now being made by the Albanese government, implementing the recommendations of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2020 Respect@Work[4] report.

That report made 55 recommendations. The Morrison government acted on just a handful.

It amended the Fair Work Act[5] to enable individuals to apply to the Fair Work Commission for a “stop sexual harassment” order, and to make it clear sexual harassment is grounds for dismissal.

The Morrison government's reforms were focused on responses to harassement complaints, rather than prevention.
The Morrison government’s reforms were focused on responses to harassement complaints, rather than prevention. Shutterstock

But it ignored the key recommendation: placing a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment, requiring them to treat harassment like other work health and safety issues.

Read more: Sexual harassment at work isn't just discrimination. It needs to be treated as a health and safety issue[6]

This was needed, the report argued, because treating sexual harassment as being about aberrant individuals led to a workplace focus on individual complaints. It did little to change structural drivers of such behaviour.

Albanese government commitments

On Monday, the Albanese government finally made this pivotal reform, when parliament passed its Respect@Work bill[7].

It is now no longer enough for employers to have a policy and act on complaints. They must also take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation.

The government has committed to implementing all 55 recommendations. The Respect@Work bill implements seven.

Others should be achieved with the omnibus industrial relations bill now before the Senate. Improving the conditions and bargaining power of those in insecure and low-paid work, and reducing gender inequalities, should lessen the vulnerabilities that enable harassment to flourish.

Read more: A mandate for multi-employer bargaining? Without it, wages for the low paid won't rise[8]

Ratifying the ILO convention

Last week Prime Minister Anthony Albanese also committed[9] to ratifying the International Labor Organisation’s convention on Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work[10].

So far, 22 nations[11] have ratified the treaty. Ratification will oblige Australia to align its laws and regulations with the treaty’s provisions.

This is significant not just because the convention is the first international treaty to enshrine the right to work free from violence and harassment as its focus. It also breaks with the historical framing of sexual harassment as an individual interpersonal conflict.

The convention calls for an integrated approach to eliminating workplace violence and harassment. In Australia’s case, this will require developing approaches that break down the policy and regulatory fences between anti-discrimination measures, and those covering workplace rights and work health and safety.

This could prove challenging – with sexual harassment being only one form of gender-based violence. But implementing all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report is a good start.

Hopefully the sixth national workplace survey will have a better story to tell.

Authors: Lisa Heap, Doctoral Researcher, RMIT University

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