One in three Australians sexually harassed at work

An Australian Human Rights Commission report shows the number of people who have reported being sexually harassed in the workplace has risen dramatically in six years.

Rates of sexual harassment in the workplace are highest in the information, media and telecommunications industry, a new study has found.

For the first time, the Australian Human Rights Commission survey of 10,000 workers has provided industry-specific data.

More than four out of five workers in the information, media and telecommunications industry said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the last five years.

The numbers were also high in the arts and recreation services, the electricity, gas, water and waste services and the retail trade sector.

Overall, the survey found almost a third of Australians have experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years, or two in five women and a quarter of men.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins told SBS News, the increase from the last survey in 2012 was worrying.

“The findings show us, concerningly, that one in three Australians have experienced sexual harassment in the last five years, which is a significant increase on our last survey,” she said. “That told us that one in five Australians had experienced sexual harassment.”

“So we should be concerned, but we also should be positive that this is a good time to act and to change this story,” she said.

The commission defines sexual harassment as any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.

Marginalised groups targeted

The report found people from marginalised groups experience higher rates of sexual harassment in the workplace than others.

People in the LGBTIQ+ community were more likely to face sexual harassment than people identifying as straight –  52 per cent compared with 31 per cent.

More than half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people said they had been sexually harassed at work, compared to one third of non-Indigenous people.

People with a disability were also more likely to experience sexual harassment at work than those without a disability.

Young Australians were the most likely age group to be sexually harassed at work, with almost half between the ages of 18 and 29 reporting cases.

Ms Jenkins said there is a common theme in the results.

“I do think this report tells us that sexual harassment is less about sex and more about power and the abuse of power,” she said.

Fewer bystanders prepared to intervene

But Ms Jenkins said the results reveal formal reporting of workplace sexual harassment remains low.

“Consistent with previous surveys, we found that only one in five people complain or report about sexual harassment when it occurs,” she said. “That includes bystanders, or people who see it occur.”

“We noticed a drop in those people intervening, so if you saw something that was inappropriate, in the past, one in two people would have spoken up or spoken to the person,” she said. “This survey shows us that it’s dropped to one in three people.”

Victoria Legal Aid lawyer Melanie Schleiger works with people who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

She told SBS News there is an inherent problem with the complaints system.

“We regularly see people who choose not to make a complaint because they want to put the incident behind them or they’re suffering from psychological damage from the harassment,” she said. “Or, they’re worried about their reputation and the effect that a complaint will have on their careers.”

“And this is what we see as a major flaw with the current legal system, that it relies entirely on victims of sexual harassment to enforce the law by making complaints,” she said.

How to take action

If someone is experiencing sexual harassment at work, there are a range of ways to take action.

The person can either confront the harasser, make an internal complaint or make a complaint to the local Human Rights Commission, or even the federal Human Rights Commission.

If the situation is still not resolved, the matter can be brought before the courts.

But Ms Schleiger said there is too much onus on the person who is being sexually harassed.

“There needs to be an agency that can prosecute employers when they fail to comply with their obligations under discrimination laws,” she said. “So if a workplace is failing to address sexual harassment, then it needs to be held to account.”