Almost two in five women and one in four men experienced sexual harassment in the workplace during the past five years, a confronting national survey undertaken by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has revealed.
The issue affects both genders but women were more likely to be sexually harassed in the workplace than men, with 23% of women reporting they had been sexually harassed at work in the last year.
Men carried out almost four out of five cases of workplace sexual harassment in the past five years and were most often a co-worker employed at the same level as the victim.
People aged 18 to 29 were more likely than any other age group to report experiencing workplace sexual harassment.
While sexual harassment has increased significantly since the AHRC conducted its most recent survey in 2012, the reporting of workplace sexual harassment continues to be low, with only 17% of people who experienced harm in the past five years lodging a formal complaint.
Released this week, more than 10,000 Australians responded to the survey, with Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins declaring findings confirm sexual harassment is widespread and pervasive in Australian workplaces.
She said the AHRC was uncertain if the rise in sexual harassment reported in the latest survey was due to rising sexually harassing behaviours or greater awareness regarding the types of behaviours that constitute sexual harassment.
She stressed sexual harassment was nevertheless an undeniable issue facing millions of Australians that must be addressed, especially on the back of growing public interest sparked by the global #MeToo movement.
“These figures are unacceptable and have increased significantly since the last survey in 2012,” Commissioner Jenkins said.
“The findings are more timely and relevant today than ever before, with the huge surge in public concern about sexual harassment generated by the #MeToo movement and the willingness of people to say that, they too, have been affected.”
For the first time, the 2018 national survey examined industry specific data in a bid to paint a more comprehensive picture of the prevalence, nature and reporting of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.
The survey found workplace sexual harassment was highest in the information, media and telecommunications industry, with 81% of employees having encountered harm.
Other industries heading the list included arts and recreation services (49%), utilities (49%), retail (42%) and mining (40%).
Healthcare and social assistance rounded out the top 10 with 33% of employees experiencing sexual harassment at work in the past five years.
According to the survey, almost half of workplace sexual harassment in the past five years took place across four key industry groups – healthcare and social assistance, retail, education, and accommodation and food services.
However, the report points out these industries employ the largest number of employees and therefore understandably make up the greatest proportion of victims of sexual harassment.
In other findings, there were some industries where men were more likely to experience higher rates of sexual harassment than women, including healthcare and social assistance, where 37% of men compared to 31% of women reported harm.
Elsewhere, behaviours most often experienced in the workplace, such as sexually suggestive comments or jokes and inappropriate staring or leering, were least likely to be reported.
Conversely, incidents with a low incidence, such as sexually explicit comments in emails, indecent phone calls, or pressure for sex, had a high level of reporting.
ACTU president Michelle O’Neil said the findings proved the current rules designed to protect workers from sexual harassment were failing.
“Sexual harassment at work is driven by power imbalances and gender inequality, and compounded by poor, unsafe and insecure work practices and conditions,” Ms O’Neil said.
Commissioner Jenkins said unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace could cause distress to workers and colleagues, impact workplace productivity, and impede career progression.
“We know from our research that many people are afraid to report their experience of unwelcome sexual conduct out of fear that they won’t be believed, that it’s not worth it, that they’ll be ostracised and that it could damage their career,” Commissioner Jenkins said.
“It’s also worrying that almost half of those that did make a formal report said that nothing changed at their organisation as a result of the complaint.”
The survey findings will inform the AHRC’s upcoming national Inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, with public consultation starting later this month.
Commissioner Jenkins said she believes there is a genuine appetite for change that will ensure all Australian workplaces are safe and free of sexual harassment.
“We encourage all workplaces to examine the results of their industry, and review the effectiveness of their current sexual harassment prevention initiatives.”