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Victimisation of those who report sexual harassment is increasingVictimisation of those who report sexual harassment is increasing


SEXUAL harassment is widespread in Australian workplaces. I can say this with authority because I have just released the results of Australian Human Rights Commission research that once again supports this assertion.

But, perhaps more alarmingly, it shows we have not managed to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment in the past five years.

Progress in addressing it has stalled and people remain extremely wary of reporting incidents. This is despite efforts by numerous people and organisations to heighten awareness of this issue – to prevent and address it in Australian workplaces.

This is despite stronger legislative protections against sexual harassment.

Perhaps even more astonishingly, it has happened despite the vast negative publicity associated with perpetrators in a number of very high-profile cases.

Sexual harassment is conduct of a sexual nature that is unwelcome. It is behaviour a reasonable person would think could make the person on the receiving end feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.

It is often extremely frightening. It is also unlawful.

As you read this, it is affecting a diverse range of people across a broad spectrum of occupations, workplaces and industries.

In the past five years, more than one in five people aged over 15 have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

The targets of sexual harassment are most likely to be women under 40, and the harassers are most likely to be male co-workers.

Women are at least five times more likely than men to have been harassed by a boss or employer. Men harassing women account for more than half of all sexual harassment, while male harassment of men accounts for nearly a quarter.

Alarmingly, victimisation and negative treatment of people who have made a formal complaint of sexual harassment has also increased.

Underlying all of this is a very low level of understanding of which types of behaviours constitute sexual harassment.

This picture is not an encouraging one.

Something clearly must be done – something more than is being done already.

Research findings are not enough. It is time to create new and innovative approaches to addressing sexual harassment.

Among the small number of positives our research revealed, there are indications of such approaches.

Among other things, we found that when formal reports and complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace are actually made, they are mostly resolved quickly and the complainants are very satisfied with the process and the outcome.

But perhaps the most useful piece of information is about individuals who have witnessed or subsequently learned about sexual harassment in their workplace. These people are called bystanders. We found that most had taken action to prevent or reduce the harm of the harassment. In fact, 13 per cent of the Australian population have been bystanders and just over half of these have taken such action.

The important thing here is that, in taking such action, these people help to mould safe work environments for themselves and their colleagues.

Bystanders can be an invaluable part of sexual harassment prevention in the workplace, but effort needs to be put into supporting and empowering them to take action. And this will require a substantial shift in organisational culture.

If we are to stand a chance of eradicating sexual harassment from our workplaces, everyone must play a part.

Employees must be able to gain a solid understanding of sexual harassment and their rights and obligations in the workplace.

Employers and unions will have to create workplaces where employees feel supported when making complaints and feel confident that employers will deal with their complaints effectively, efficiently and responsibly.

We need to send a clear message that sexual harassment ruins lives, divides teams and damages the effectiveness of organisations.

It is time to renew our commitment to eradicating sexual harassment. And I mean all of us – employers, employees, unions, government, employer associations and other concerned individuals – taking a stand and playing a part to ensure that sexual harassment has no place in Australian workplaces.

The 2012 national telephone survey on sexual harassment lays bare the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment in Australia.

Now every one of us must take responsibility to name the problem, identify its causes and ensure effective action.

Women and men must be able to work without fear. After all, being safe at work is a basic human right.


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