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Sexual harassment is harmful and unlawful. 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. By understanding and addressing the drivers of sexual harassment, workplaces can help prevent it.

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.

Evidence shows that violence against women is much more likely to occur when power, opportunities and resources are not shared equally between men and women in society, and when women are not valued and respected as much as men.

An iceberg showing violence against women above water – 'murder, rape and sexual assault', physical and emotional abuse, sexual harassment' and the drivers of violence against women below the surface (disrespect of women, sexist jokes, unequal pay, harmful gender stereotypes, sexist language'.
Gender inequality is what lies below the surface driving violence against women. Image adapted from Gippsland Women's Health.

The gendered drivers of violence

Violence against women has distinct gendered drivers. Evidence points to four factors that most consistently predict or ‘drive’ violence against women and explain its gendered patterns.

Driver 1: Condoning of violence against women

When societies, institutions or communities support or condone violence against women, levels of such violence are higher.[1] Individual men who hold these beliefs are more likely to perpetrate violence against women. Condoning of violence against women occurs in many ways, through practices that justify, excuse or trivialise this violence or shift blame from the perpetrator to the victim.

Driver 2: Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life

Violence is more common in relationships in which men control decision-making and limit women’s autonomy, have a sense of ownership of or entitlement to women, and hold rigid ideas on acceptable female behaviour.[1] Constraints on women’s independence and access to decision-making are also evident in the public sphere, where men have greater control over power and resources. This sends a message that women have lower social value and are less worthy of respect.

Driver 3: Rigid gender stereotyping and dominant forms of masculinity

Promoting and enforcing rigid and hierarchical gender stereotypes reproduces the social conditions of gender inequality that underpin violence against women. In particular, socially dominant stereotypes of masculinity play a direct role in driving men’s violence against women.

Driver 4: Male peer relations and cultures of masculinity that emphasise aggression, dominance and control

Male peer relationships (both personal and professional) that are characterised by attitudes, behaviours or norms regarding masculinity that centre on aggression, dominance, control or hypersexuality are associated with violence against women.