Over the last five years, one in three people have been sexually harassed within a work environment and one in five has reported such incidents to their supervisors.

Such alarming figures were released on 12 September 2018 in the Australian Human Rights Commission's (AHRC) national survey of 10,272 individuals, the fourth workplace sexual harassment survey of its kind. The results are a timely reminder of the #MeToo movement's progress, which has seen a significant rise in the conversation around workplace sexual harassment.

Key findings

The AHRC confirmed the trend that workplace sexual harassment continues to affect more women than men, with 39 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men experiencing an incident at some time during the last five years. Individuals subject to sexual harassment are most likely to be aged 18-29.

Although the percentage of men who reported that they had experienced sexual harassment has risen from 9 per cent in 2012 to 26 per cent in 2018, the survey revealed that the percentage of perpetrators being male remained at 79 per cent. Instances of sexual harassment involving a colleague of the same seniority improved, decreasing from one in two cases in 2012 to one in four in 2018.

Making sexually suggestive or offensive comments towards another colleague was the most recurrent kind of sexual harassment, with 25 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men reporting having experienced such behaviour in the past five years. The 2012 survey observed a similar prevalence of this type of conduct. Half of the incidents occurred at the victim's workstation, while one-quarter took place in work social areas. A particularly concerning finding is that although incidents were often viewed by onlookers, in those cases only 69 per cent chose to intervene.

Reporting of complaints

Despite the #MeToo movement, one of the interesting statistics is that although the numbers of people experiencing sexual harassment has increased, the percentage of people who report the harassment has decreased from 32 per cent in 2003 to just 17 per cent at present. Raising the harassment with a direct supervisor remains the primary means of reporting. Yet when individuals chose to report, the survey found that they were often labelled as troublemakers, and ostracised by colleagues or the complaint was ignored. Close to half of all people who reported an incident noted that little to no organisational change had transpired as a result of their reporting. With the current apparent cultural shift, both victims and witnesses of sexual harassment should feel more empowered to raise incidents promptly so they may be appropriately investigated and managed.

The survey noted a significant variance in the rates of workplace harassment between particular industries. For instance, the media and communications industry recorded the highest percentage of victims at 81 per cent of participants surveyed. Following behind were the arts and recreation (49 per cent), utilities (47 per cent), retail (42 per cent) and financial services industries (39 per cent).

What does this mean for employers?

The survey confirms that sexual harassment remains widespread, and is a valuable source of data to inform workplace action and policy. Many organisations may have the systems and policies in place to inform employees of acceptable workplace conduct, as well as grievance policies to enable employees to report sexual harassment. However, those systems need to be fully embedded in the organisation's culture. Employees must be encouraged and empowered to call out bad behaviour, to know that they will be supported if they do make a claim, and ultimately organisations must be able to make the hard decisions to remove employees who do not uphold their values.

All of this is essential to ensure the safety of all employees and other staff whilst at work. Organisations which fail to achieve a workplace free from harassment, are at increasing risk both from a legal and reputational perspective.

What next?

As reported in our recent article the AHRC's inquiry into sexual harassment in Australia, the AHRC has recently announced a world-first inquiry into sexual harassment at work. This will give all employers the opportunity to make submissions to the AHRC focusing on their experiences, issues and concerns. We will be providing regular updates on the inquiry and will be undertaking a survey of our clients, which we may use as a basis of our own submission to the AHRC as part of the inquiry.

Ultimately, however, it is to be hoped that the #MeToo movement and its unprecedented media coverage, coupled with the AHRC's latest survey findings and its inquiry into sexual harassment at work will herald an encouraging change in the AHRC survey results come 2023.

Please refer to related article: #MeToo and #Timesup – What Now for Employers?

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