Between April and June 2018, the Australian Human Rights Commission (the Commission) conducted a national survey to investigate the prevalence, nature and reporting of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces and the community more broadly. The Commission has conducted and reported on similar sexual harassment surveys in 2003, 2008 and 2012.
The 2018 National workplace sexual harassment survey (2018 National Survey) was designed to collect data about:
- the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment experienced by Australians aged 15 years and older across their lifetime (at any time or anywhere)
- the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment experienced by Australians aged 15 years and older in the workplace
- the perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment
- characteristics of workplaces where harassment occurs
- the industries where harassment occurs
- the reporting of workplace sexual harassment and the outcomes of complaints
- the impacts of workplace sexual harassment on those who experience it
- the responses of people who witnessed or heard about sexual harassment in their workplaces, and
- Australians’ levels of awareness of where they can access information about sexual harassment.
The 2018 National Survey was conducted both online and by telephone with a sample of over 10,000 Australians. The survey measured people’s experiences of sexual harassment over the course of their lifetimes and within the last five years.
The results of the 2018 National Survey reveal that a large majority of Australians have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their lifetime. Women are significantly more likely than men to have experienced sexual harassment over the course of their lifetime. However, rates of sexual harassment are also high among Australian men.
It is also clear that the nature and type of sexual harassment experienced by Australians differs by demographic profile such as age, disability, sexual orientation and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander status.
- 71% of Australians have been sexually harassed at some point in their lifetimes.
- More than four in five (85%) Australian women and over half (56%) of Australian men over the age of 15 have been sexually harassed at some point in their lifetimes.
- The most common forms of sexual harassment experienced were:
- offensive sexually suggestive comments or jokes: two thirds of (59%) women and one quarter (26%) of men
- inappropriate physical contact: just over half of women (54%) and one quarter (23%) of men, and
- unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing: just over half of women (51%) and one in five (21%) men.
- Almost one quarter (23%) of women have experienced actual or attempted rape or sexual assault at some point in their lifetimes and nearly one third (31%) of women have experienced unwelcome requests or pressure for sex or other sexual acts.
- While the sample was small, those who identified as non-binary or as a gender other than male or female were very likely (89%) to have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetimes.
- Rates of sexual harassment were highest among people aged 18–29, with three in four people (75%) in this age group having experienced sexual harassment over the course of their lifetimes.
- 70% of people who identify as straight or heterosexual have experienced sexual harassment over the course of their lifetimes, compared with 83% of people who identify as gay or lesbian and 90% of people who identify as bisexual.
- Nine out of ten (89%) women with disability and almost seven out of ten (68%) men with disability have been sexually harassed in their lifetimes.
The results of the 2018 National Survey indicate that there is a high rate of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, with one in three people (33%) having experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years. As with lifetime sexual harassment, women were more likely to be sexually harassed in the workplace than men.
- In the last 12 months, 23% of women in the Australian workforce have experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment compared with 16% of men in the workforce.
When examining workplace sexual harassment in the last five years:
- almost two in five women (39%) and just over one in four men (26%) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years.
- people aged 18 to 29 were more likely than those in other age groups to have experienced workplace sexual harassment in the past five years (45%).
- people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, asexual, aromantic, undecided, not sure, questioning or other were more likely than people who identify as straight or heterosexual to have experienced workplace sexual harassment in the past five years (52% and 31% respectively).
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more likely to have experienced workplace sexual harassment than people who are not Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (53% and 32% respectively).
- people with disability were also more likely than those without disability to have been sexually harassed in the workplace (44% and 32% respectively).
The majority of workplace sexual harassment was perpetrated by men. Harassers were most often a co-worker employed at the same level as the victim and in the majority of cases, had sexually harassed others in the same workplace in a similar manner.
The survey results indicate that, based on the most recent incident of sexual harassment experienced at work in the last five years:
- perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment are overwhelmingly male. In almost four out of five cases (79%) of workplace sexual harassment in the past five years, one or more of the perpetrators were male.
- almost two-thirds (64%) of workplace sexual harassment in the past five years was perpetrated by a single perpetrator.
- perpetrators were most often a co-worker at the same level as the victim. Where there was a single perpetrator, more than one in four cases (27%) involved a co-worker at the same level as the victim. Where there were multiple perpetrators, more than one in three cases (35%) involved at least one co-worker at the same level as the victim.
Data from the 2018 National Survey contributes to a comprehensive picture of the nature of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. In a large number of workplace sexual harassment cases, the harassment was ongoing over an extended period. In addition, a substantial proportion of people who were sexually harassed experienced negative consequences as a result, such as impacts on mental health or stress.
- For both women and men, the most common type of workplace sexual harassment experienced was offensive, sexually suggestive comments or jokes. One in four women (25%) and just over one in ten men (13%) have experienced this type of workplace harassment in the last five years.
- More than half of workplace sexual harassment (52%) occurred at the victim’s workstation or where they work. One-quarter of incidents (26%) happened in a social area for employees.
- A substantial proportion (40%) of workplace sexual harassment incidents were witnessed by at least one other person, and in the majority of cases (69%) the witness did not try to intervene.
- The most common negative consequence of workplace sexual harassment was an impact on mental health or stress (36%). In general, women were more likely than men to experience negative consequences as a result of workplace sexual harassment.
- Women reported higher levels of offence and intimidation about their most recent incident of workplace sexual harassment than men (21% of women felt ‘extremely offended’, compared to 12% of men; 16% of women felt ‘extremely intimidated’, compared to 10% of men).
The prevalence of sexual harassment across industry sectors was broadly aligned with the proportions of Australian workers employed in those industries.
- Rates of workplace sexual harassment are notably high in some industries, including: information, media and telecommunications (81% of employees in this industry in the last five years), arts and recreation services (49%), electricity, gas, water and waste services (42%) and retail trade (42%).
- A substantial proportion (just over two in five) of workplaces where the sexual harassment occurred had an equal mix of female and male employees.
- One in five people who were sexually harassed at work said the behaviour was common (20%) in their workplace.
- Two in five people (41%) said they were aware of someone else in their workplace who had also been sexually harassed in the same way as them.
The majority of people who were sexually harassed at work did not formally report their experience or seek support or advice, with many victims believing a formal complaint would be viewed as an overreaction or that it was easier to stay quiet.
- Fewer than one in five people (17%) made a formal report or complaint in relation to workplace sexual harassment.
- The majority of people (55%) who reported their most recent incident of workplace sexual harassment made the report to their direct manager or supervisor.
- Almost one in five people who made a formal report or complaint were labelled as a troublemaker (19%), were ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues (18%) or resigned (17%).
- In one in five cases (19%) the formal report or complaint brought no consequences for the perpetrator. The most common outcome of reports or complaints was a formal warning to the perpetrator (30% of cases).
- Almost half (45%) of people who made a formal report said that no changes occurred at their organization as a result of the complaint. This was more likely to be the case for complaints lodged by women (55%) than for complaints lodged by men (31%). The most common reasons for not reporting workplace sexual harassment were that people would think it was an over-reaction (49%) and it was easier to keep quiet (45%).
- Fewer than one in five people (18%) who experienced workplace sexual harassment sought support or advice in relation to the incident. Where advice or support was sought, most commonly it was from friends or family (61%).
Although more than one third of people witnessed or heard about the sexual harassment of someone else in their workplace, only one in three bystanders took action to intervene.
- More than one-third of people (37%) have witnessed or heard about the sexual harassment of another person at their workplace in the past five years.
- Only one in three people (35%) who witnessed or heard about the sexual harassment of someone else in the workplace took action to prevent or reduce the harm of this harassment.
- Most commonly (in 71% of cases), the action taken by the bystander was to talk with or listen to the victim about the incident. In less than half of cases (47%) the bystander reported the harassment to the employer.
- The most common reason for bystanders not taking action was knowing that other people were supporting and assisting the victim (41%). In one-quarter (25%) of cases, the bystander did not take action because they did not want to make things worse for the victim.
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