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Sexual harassment is harmful and unlawful, whether it is perpetrated by a man or a woman. Research shows that sexual harassment in workplaces is driven by gender inequality.

Sexual harassment is prevalent but preventable. Its impact on individuals and organisations can be significant. Research shows that sexual harassment in the workplace is driven by:

  • Condoning of sexual harassment and violence against women
  • Men’s control of decision making and limits to women’s independence
  • Rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity
  • Men disrespecting women to bond with other men

By understanding and addressing these drivers, workplaces can help prevent sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in Australian workplaces

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.

Sexual harassment in Australia is highly gendered. Women are much more likely than men to have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime (85% compared to 56%).1 Almost 4 out of 5 cases of workplace sexual harassment are perpetrated by men.2

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).3
  • Women living with a disability are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace (52% compared with 39% of all women).4
  • Young women (aged 18-24) are more than twice as likely than the general population to experience sexual harassment.5
  • People of diverse sexual orientation are more likely to have experienced workplace sexual harassment compared to heterosexual people (52% compared with 31%).6

What drives sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a social problem. Stopping it is not just about the behaviour of individuals, but about changing the culture and environment of workplaces in which it occurs.

Graphic of an iceberg showing violence against women above water and the drivers of violence against women below the surface.
Gender inequality is what lies below the surface driving violence against women. Image adapted from Gippsland Women's Health.

Condoning of sexual harassment and violence against women

Attitudes, words, and actions that trivialise, make light of, or justify sexual harassment and violence against women and other diverse groups allow people to think it is acceptable or excusable.

Workplaces that permit this behaviour have a higher risk of sexual harassment and are less likely to have adequate and appropriate responses to those who disclose harassment. This puts both the organisation and staff at risk. Everyone has a role in creating a workplace where sexual harassment and violence is never excused or accepted.

Men’s control of decision making and limits to women’s independence

Data shows that workplace leadership (CEOs, managers, board members, and chairs) is still overwhelmingly dominated by men.7

When any one socio-economic and cultural group dominate workplace leadership, their assumptions and biases strongly influence workplace culture, and can allow abuses of power. In these workplaces, women and people from diverse backgrounds often have limited avenues to stop harassment, call it out, or leave.

The way that a complaint is received by management can threaten the employment or career progression of someone who experiences harassment, and many people will endure unacceptable behaviour if they are not confident they will be supported by the workplace.

Rigid gender roles and stereotypes about masculinity and femininity

Common ideas of how men and women ‘should’ think and act influence the types of roles they are expected to fulfil at work.

Gender roles can be particularly harmful for employees as traditional female roles are commonly less valued. This creates an enabling environment for sexual harassment to occur and can particularly impact those who choose to step outside ‘normal’ roles in the workplace.

Men disrespecting women to bond with other men

Sexual harassment in the workplace stems from a broader acceptance of men showing aggression and disrespect towards women. For some men, making jokes and comments that reinforce the idea that women should be less powerful than men is a way of gaining approval from their male peers.

Workplace norms and power are influenced by the beliefs and assumptions of the leadership team, which can be problematic when these teams do not reflect the diversity of Australian society. For example, sexual harassment has been found to be more prevalent in male-dominated workplaces.8

National survey results suggest that both men and women in male dominated occupations are more likely to demonstrate attitudinal support for violence against women.9 Men in these occupations are less likely to support gender equality, while women are more likely to have a low level of understanding of violence against women.