Sexual harassment in Australia – What’s going on?

by 23 Aug 2012

Despite nearly three decades of legislation and increased awareness of the problem, sexual harassment remains a significant problem in the workplace. Stuart King reports on the latest survey findings.

Despite around 29 years of legislation, sexual harassment remains a problem in our workplaces. Sexual harassment creates a considerable risk to business and to people affected by it. Why is it then that we still have people sexually harassing others in workplaces? Why is it that people from CEO’s through to colleagues feel it’s ok?

Unfortunately there are people in our community that do not embrace community values and who create difficulties through that lack of alignment. Sexual harassment in the workplace is an example of how people choose not to demonstrate community or corporate values. A choice that carries a risk.

Sexual harassment is defined in the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) as ‘any unwelcome or unwanted sexual behavior which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and /or intimidated where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstance’.

A national telephone survey conducted in 2008 by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 22% of females and 5% of males had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at some time, compared to 28% of females and 7% of males in 2003.

Another survey in 2008 found a lack of understanding as to what sexual harassment is. Around one in five (22%) respondents who said they had not experienced ‘sexual harassment’ then went on to report having experienced behaviours that may in fact have amounted to sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). Only 16% of those who have been sexually harassed in the last five years in the workplace formally reported or made a complaint, compared to 32% in 2003.

Risk to Business conducted a large and independent national survey of workplace behaviours in December 2011. Our research was designed to capture the stories about the experiences of everyday Australians in work. The survey recorded the responses of 5,000 Australians. In regard to sexual harassment the survey results were fascinating.

621 or 6.44% of our survey sample reported on the subject of sexual harassment.

 How prevalent was the behavior in the survey group?


  • 30% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment at least once
  • 47% experience it every now and then
  • 18% experience it frequently
  • 5% experience it all the time
  • 18% had experienced sexual harassment in the previous 3 months


What was the age of the person affected?


  • 8% were younger than 25 yrs old
  • 24% were 25 to 34
  • 29% were 35 to 44
  • 25% were 45 to 54
  • 13% were above 55yrs of age


Who sexually harassed?


  • 21% reported their senior manager
  • 16% reported their manager
  • 18% reported their team leader
  • 23% reported their team member
  • 16% reported an individual employee


What did this make people feel?


  • 26% felt angry, hurt and betrayed
  • 27% felt upset or emotional about it
  • 4% felt depressed and suicidal
  • 11% felt unsupported and alone
  • 7% felt they would leave if they could


What did the participant’s organisation do?


  • 2% made things worse
  • 13% turned a blind eye
  • 39% did nothing
  • 27% made things better
  • 3% of people were victimised


Effect on motivation for work?


  • 35% of people reported reduced productivity.
  • 3% reported improved productivity
  • 52% reported no change in their motivation


What action was taken by the person affected?


  • 32% complained to a manager
  • 3% took legal action
  • 11% left their job
  • 1% copied the behavior
  • 39% did nothing


How many days of work were lost?


  • 62 % reported 1 to 5 days were taken off as a result of the behavior
  • 14% took 6 to 10 days
  • 14% took 11 to 30 days
  • 10% took more than 30 days


  • 21% of male survey participants reported sexual harassment
  • 79% of women survey participants reported sexual harassment


In the “Nett Behaviour Scores” of our survey, 76% of participants felt the workplace behaviour was dysfunctional at their workplace.

Our survey has more to reveal as we unpack the data. General poor behaviour and workplace bullying were reported in significant numbers and will be reported on in following articles.

The message from our research is clear; sexual harassment still happens, it still affects people, and our community of work needs to be constantly vigilant ensuring that they have a solid understanding of what sexual harassment is. This involves comprehensive training and programs that focus on prevention and risk mitigation.


About the author 

Stuart King is Managing Director of Risk to Business and is a leading commentator on matters relating to diversity and inclusion in workplaces.

Or phone 03 8677 0884


  • by Bernie Althofer 23/08/2012 1:26:40 PM

    Interesting results. It is a concern when organisations have well documented policies and procedures in relation to a range of counterproductive behaviours e.g. sexual harassment and bullying and despite training being delivered, individuals seek external advice regarding their options. It would be interesting to see how many people realised that they had been sexually harassed, sought advice on resolution options and then decided to do nothing (and the reasons for this action).

    Knowing about the unreported incidents and the reasons for not reporting is as important, if not more important than knowing about the reported incidents. There may be underlying workplace culture issues that impact on those who report, so much so that anyone who reports (or even supports those who report) are victimised or targeted.

    As Stuart has indicated, comprehensive proactive and preventive training that also incorporates recent decisions from Courts, Commissions and Tribunals, has to be ongoing.

    It might also be the case that allegations of sexual harassment also include allegations about bullying and other workplace relations issues.

  • by Stuart King 23/08/2012 9:16:19 PM

    Thank you for your insightful comments Bernie. Our data continues to be reviewed and we are looking at issues of other behaviours linked to sexual harassment like Bullying.

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