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

by Chloe Taylor03 Jul 2015
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.”


  • by Bernie Althofer 4/07/2015 2:55:48 PM

    Some workplaces may find the issue of sexual harassment divisive even when there are clearly defined policies and procedures. The harassment becomes divisive in those workplaces where the sub culture is such that some people are expected to 'go with the flow' particularly in cases such as those outlined above.

    In some workplaces, the actual work place practices can mean that what one person says is not taken as sexual harassment (or even offensive in any way) whilst the same thing said by another person can come across as 'creepy'.

    Despite workplaces conducting training, audits or assessments are required to determine whether or not managers and workers at all levels actually know and understand the policy and procedure, know and understand the various 'shades' of harassment, and know and understand what they are actually required to do in the workplace to meet policy requirements.

    In some workplaces, considerable angst is created when one person is penalised for their actions, even when others had indicated their agreement to 'view' certain material. In other workplaces, when a person remains silent during the telling of sexually offensive jokes or display of material and then later makes a complaint, this too creates 'angst'.

    In my view, it is important to have face to face sessions that allow participants to open discussions to share their understanding and concerns, and even come to terms with the implications of what they say or do. For example, they may find it beneficial to discuss why one person might complain when another will not, or why someone finds something offensive when another sees it as 'harmless'.

    In the past, I have provided advice to workers involved in 'joke telling' only to find that someone present later made a complaint. For some, the view is that if one is offended, they should speak up then and there. In reality, it is not as simple as that. In addition, the above story raises the need for managers and workers to talk about same gender harassment. People can and do get offended by language or behaviours that may not directly target them but is said in their presence, about other people.

    Workplace standards need to be set, and managers need to take action to ensure that there is compliance with those standards. The difficulty now is for some people to understand what is a 'workplace', who is a 'worker' and the relevance of work health and safety legislation to unlawful discrimination (including sexual harassment) legislation. Making people responsible and holding them accountable through performance management processes is difficult when there is considerable angst about the approach. It is also difficult to address counterproductive workplace behaviours when the sub culture or even the unwritten ground rules make it difficult not only for targets and witnesses to report the behaviours, and is also difficult managers and supervisors to do the job they are paid to do when they are part of the culture the condones sexual harassment to the point of condoning it.

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