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Understanding violence and sexual harassment

8 minute read

All violence is unacceptable, whether it occurs in the home or the workplace, and whether it is perpetrated by men or women. Research shows that violence against women is prevalent and driven by gender inequality.

What is gender-based violence?

Gender-based violence refers to harmful acts directed at an individual or a group of individuals based on their gender. It is rooted in gender inequality, abuse of power and harmful norms. This definition encompasses all forms of violence that women experience (including physical, sexual, emotional, cultural, spiritual, financial, and others) that are gender-based, including sexual harassment.

See Change the story for more detail.

Examples of gender-based violence include:

  • Sexual harassment, whether in workplaces, public spaces or online.
  • Intimate partner, dating violence and/or family violence which can be physical, psychological, financial, coercive-control, or stalking.
  • Sexual violence, including rape, whether perpetrated by someone known or by a stranger.
  • Specific types of violence that are primarily experienced by particular communities of women and girls such as dowry-related abuse, sexual and reproductive coercion, or so-called ‘honour crimes’.
  • Forced marriage, forced abortions and forced sterilisations.
  • Violence that occurs in institutional settings, such as violence in prisons, aged care facilities, disability or residential care settings, or health or education settings, which can include state-sanctioned or legalised violence.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favours or other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated.

See Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020) for a detailed definition.

Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace include:

  • Unwelcome touching or kissing
  • Staring or leering
  • Suggestive jokes or comments or sexual banter
  • Unwelcome invitations to go out on dates
  • Requests for sex
  • Discrimination or insults based on your sex
  • Intrusive questions about your private life or body
  • Sharing sexually explicit emails, SMS messages or images
  • A hostile work environment or workplace culture where you feel uncomfortable or excluded based on sex

Facts about gender-based violence and sexual harassment

  • On average, one woman is killed every nine days by a current or former partner.1
  • 1 in 3 women (30.5%) has experienced physical violence since the age of 15.2
  • Workplace sexual harassment is a common problem, one-third (33%) of people indicated they had experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years and one in four women has been sexually harassed at work in the past 12 months.3
  • Women are much more likely than men to have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime (85% compared to 56%).4
  • Almost 4 out of 5 cases of workplace sexual harassment are perpetrated by men.5
  • 2018 data suggests women are sexually assaulted at a rate almost seven times higher than men.6
  • According to Deloitte Access Economics, in 2018, workplace sexual harassment cost $2.6 billion in lost productivity and $0.9 billion in other financial costs. Each case of harassment represents around four working days of lost output. Employers bore 70% of the financial costs, government 23% and individuals 7%. Lost wellbeing for victims was an additional $250 million, or nearly $5,000 per victim on average.7
  • One in 7 Australians do not agree that women are as capable as men in politics and in the workplace.8
  • Nearly one quarter of Australians see no harm in telling sexist jokes.9
  • Based on 2015 analysis, violence against women in Australia is costing Australia $21.7 billion each year.10
  • $323.4 billion — estimate of how much violence against women will cost the Australian economy by 2044–2045.11

Women who experience other forms of discrimination are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are substantially more likely to have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (55% compared with 39% of all women).12
  • Women living with a disability are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace (52% compared with 39% of all women).13
  • Young women (aged 18-24) are more than twice as likely than the general population to experience sexual harassment.14
  • People of diverse sexual orientation are more likely to have experienced workplace sexual harassment compared to heterosexual people (52% compared with 31%).15

The drivers of gender-based violence and sexual harassment

Violence against women and sexual harassment is preventable. Research shows that sexual harassment in workplaces and violence against women is driven by gender inequality.

Stopping sexual harassment and violence against women it is not just about the behaviour of individuals, but about changing the culture and environment of workplaces in which it occurs.

By understanding what drives violence against women and sexual harassment and taking action to change the conditions that allow it to occur, you and your workplace can help create an Australia free from violence.

Change the story, which provides the evidence for the Workplace Equality and Respect tools and resources, identifies four drivers for gender-based violence, including sexual harassment.

Driver 1: In workplaces, excusing or minimising violence against women and sexual harassment or trying to justify why the violence occurred.

In the workplace this looks like:

  • Dismissing women’s experiences of sexual harassment
  • Sexually suggestive comments or jokes that intimidate or offend

Taking action example: Support your staff to be active bystanders who challenge attitudes, beliefs, systems and practices that justify, excuse, trivialise or downplay inappropriate workplace behaviours.

Driver 2: Gender inequality in workplaces resulting in men dominating decision-making.

In the workplace this looks like:

  • Gender pay gaps
  • Lack of women in leadership
  • Lack of respect for women, including women from marginalised groups

Taking action example: Increase the representation of women (with diverse backgrounds and life experiences) in formal and informal decision-making roles.

Driver 3: Rigid gender stereotyping which limits the ways people can express themselves.

In the workplace this looks like:

  • Making assumptions that certain types of work are better suited for women (or men)
  • Assumptions about caregiving roles impacting access to parental leave

Taking action example: Promote and support gender-equitable domestic and parenting practices through workplace initiatives.

Driver 4: Masculine behaviour that emphasises aggression, dominance and control.

In the workplace this looks like:

  • Locker-room talk
  • Unwanted touching, hugging, kissing or sexual gestures

Taking action example: Set up male allyship initiatives that promote representations of men modelling respectful, fair, ethical, safe, inclusive, equitable behaviours in the workplace.

The power of workplaces

Our work lives have a significant influence on us professionally and personally, and help shape our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours around gender equality and violence against women. Every workplace conversation, policy and action has the potential to either reinforce or challenge gender inequality and the kinds of attitudes and norms that drive violence.

Workplace policies and practices can perpetuate gender inequality by devaluing, excluding or marginalising women of all backgrounds. This can result in bias unconsciously steering decision making or the status quo of gender inequality being preserved.

On the other hand, workplaces can drive change by developing policies and practices that proactively support women and men to equally share care responsibilities and unpaid work, take up senior roles and be economically independent.

Peer relationships and stereotypes can be formed and shaped in the workplace, so what an organisation accepts, and rewards, will influence attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.

Workplaces have a key opportunity to counter persistent beliefs and attitudes that perpetuate gender inequality.

Likewise, in their interactions with stakeholders, workplaces can use their status and influence to challenge stereotypes and speak out against sexual harassment and violence.

Our Watch can help guide you to act now to create workplaces that are equal, respectful and prevent sexual harassment.

Talk to the Our Watch Workplaces and Institute team about how we can help you prevent violence against women in your workplace today.

What's next?

How to prevent violence in workplaces