Workplace sexual harassment is becoming more prevalent in Australia

By Hannah Pelka-Caven on March 4th, 2019
  1. Bullying, Harassment & Discrimination
  2. Sexual harassment in the workplace


The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) fourth national survey into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces demonstrates that sexual harassment remains a significant concern for both employees and employers.

This is particularly evident when the 2018 results are contrasted with the findings of the previous 2012 survey, with many of the statistics suggesting workplace sexual harassment is becoming more prevalent.

Key survey findings

  • 61% of women say they have experienced some form of sexual harassment when provided with its legal definition, an increase from 21% in 2012.
  • There has been an increase in the incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace, with 39% of women aged 15 years or older experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • The prevalence of sexual harassment was higher amongst people who are LGBTQI.
  • 79% of perpetrators of workplace sexual harassment are male.
  • 83% of incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace went unreported.
  • 43% of those who did make a formal report about sexual harassment experienced negative consequences as a result – including being labelled a trouble maker (19%), being ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues (18%), being disciplined, or resigning (17%).

What do the AHRC survey results mean for employers?

Against the backdrop of the #metoo movement, the results of the 2018 survey send a clear message to employers about the prevalence and concerning nature of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Apart from demonstrating the importance of employers taking a stand against sexual harassment, it also highlights the importance of ensuring that strategies for minimising risk are implemented and assessed on an ongoing basis.

Particularly worrying is the survey’s finding that 49% of those who experienced workplace sexual harassment did not report or make a complaint about it because they believed people would think they were overreacting.

Of similar concern is the finding that one of the most common reasons these individuals felt that the sexual harassment was not serious enough to make a formal complaint was that the behaviour was commonplace, or an accepted part of their workplace.

If this is the case, many employers risk significant liability.

However, there are steps that can be taken to combat this risk.

Firstly, it is important that appropriate policies and procedures are in place, and that adequate training is provided, with managers who have undergone training and will model best practice for others in the workplace.

It is also key that organisations have effective reporting systems in place which can manage complaints promptly and sensitively.

The survey also highlights the serious repercussions that 43% of sexual harassment victims face after making a complaint.

This should be of particular concern to employers, given victimisation is already unlawful under discrimination laws. This again highlights the importance of training and policies in relation to acceptable behaviours in the workplace, with education provided at all levels of the business.

Key preventative steps

  • Strong policies and procedures in relation to sexual harassment, discrimination, victimisation, equal opportunity and bullying.
  • Training in policies, procedures and complaint handling guidelines for both workers and managers.
  • Encouraging appropriate conduct by managers and workers.
  • Prompt, competent and sensitive investigation of any complaints.
  • Providing protection and support for employees who feel they are being harassed.
  • Monitoring and revising policies and training regularly.
  • Leadership from managers and directors on the issue.

Do you know what to do next?

In our essential eBook, Managing Sexual Harassment, we detail step-by-step everything you must do to identify and prevent workplace sexual harassment, as well as how to minimise your legal risks when handling a sexual harassment claim.

Learn more.


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