HR urged to ‘shine a light on less typical manifestations’ of sexual harassment

The author of a new study on sexual harassment in the workplace has called upon employers to raise awareness around less typical sexual harassment cases.

HR urged to ‘shine a light on less typical manifestations’ of sexual harassment
A new study by Queensland University of Technology (QUT)’s Business School, more than one in ten workplace sexual harassment complaints are made by men.

According to the research – which was conducted by QUT’s professor Paula McDonald and RMIT’s professor Sara Charlesworth – women were accused of sexually harassing men in 5% of cases, while men were accused of harassing other men in 11% of cases.

Published in the Work, Employment and Society journal, 'Workplace sexual harassment at the margins' analysed sexual harassment complaints lodged with Australian Equal Opportunity Commissions (EOCs) from over a period of six months.

The study is the first instance of researchers analysing the nature of sexual harassment complaints lodged in all of Australia’s federal, state and territory EOCs over a prolonged period.

Researchers found that the vast majority of cases were complaints made by women against male colleagues, but in 6% of cases women were being harassed by women.

“Men are overwhelmingly responsible for sexual harassment against women in the workplace, but men are also the targets of sexual harassment far more commonly than typically assumed by researchers or the community at large,” said McDonald, the lead author of the study.

“It is important to shine a light on these less typical manifestations, including sexual harassment by men of other men and by women of men or other women, which are often less visible and may be less understood.”

The study also revealed that the majority of sexual harassment allegations were being made against individuals in more senior positions.

“This was particularly noticeable in female to female complaints, where 90% of complaints were made by subordinates against supervisors,” McDonald continued.
“Previous research has shown that in certain contexts women may be encouraged to perform as ‘honorary men’, adopting sexualised banter to maintain authority and ‘fit in’ with the dominant male gender culture. This was clearly illustrated in the female-to-female complaints in the study.”

Male-to-male harassment complaints often stemmed from intimidation or the questioning of men’s sexuality.

For example, one male complainant alleged his female manager asked him to lift his shirt and show her his muscles, as well as shouting at him and humiliating him in front of co-workers.

Another man alleged his male co-worker called him "princess", and told him to "toughen up" and that he would rape him.

According to McDonald, the various complaints were characterised by a “wide range of intimidating, offensive physical and non-physical conduct” in a “variety of workplaces”.

The most frequently reported form of physical harassment – the root of 40% of complaints in the ‘male-to-female group’ and one in three cases of the ‘female-to-female group’ – was unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing.

“This study showed that regardless of the sex of the complainant or alleged harasser, sexual harassment causes significant psychological and workplace damage and that it is under-reported compared to its prevalence in workplaces,” said McDonald.

“It is difficult to measure prevalence but a recent survey indicated around 25% of women and 16% of men reported having experienced workplace sexual harassment in the last five years.

“It is vital workplaces have supportive complaints mechanisms, including for men, who may find about it more difficult to report sexual harassment.”

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