Busting the top 5 myths about sexual harassment at work.

A handful of my friends experienced the seedy side of working life while in their early 20s.

One was unexpectedly kissed by her boss, a senior employer of a large international company. She actually kicked him in the shin to escape the situation. Another had her breasts groped while at after-work drinks in front of her colleagues. Though the incidents occurred years apart, they had something in common. Like four out of five Australian who are sexually harassed at work, neither of these women reported the behaviour.

Not workplace-appropriate behaviour, Ted.

Sexual harassment – defined as unwelcome sexual conduct that makes a reasonable person feel humiliated, intimidated or offended – is still rife in workplaces across the country, despite it being outlawed 30 years ago.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, one in five Australians have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. That’s equivalent to the combined populations of South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. And 25 per cent of women have experienced workplace sexual harassment in the past five years (these women would fill the MCG 20 times over). But only 20 per cent of victims make a formal report for a multitude of reasons.

Not only is sexual harassment in the workplace rife and stressful, it can also be very confusing.

Research indicates that many people do not know what behaviours constitute sexual harassment and, even if they do, they don’t report it because they don’t think it is serious enough, are afraid of repercussions in the workplace, or feel pressured not to “dob” or to “take a joke”.

Mamamia spoke to Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kate Jenkins about the five most common sexual harassment misconceptions.


1. The inappropriate behaviour happened at informal after-work drinks at a bar, so it wasn’t sexual harassment at work.

“Well this can depend on circumstances. If the after work function is arranged or condoned by management (perhaps a manager has even put money on the bar), then this could be viewed as an extension of the work environment, which is covered by the sexual harassment laws,” Ms Jenkins said.

2. I wasn’t groped or touched – it was just a comment – so it’s not serious enough to complain about.

“Sexual harassment is not just about physical touching. It is any unwanted sexual conduct and this may include sexual innuendo or inappropriate humour.  The person’s intention is not relevant. If the person experiencing the behaviour is offended, humiliated or intimidated it could be sexual harassment,” Ms Jenkins said.

According to statistics, 97 per cent of sexual harassment cases are non-physical. Sexually suggestive comments or jokes is the most common form of sexual harassment, but behaviours can also include staring or leering, unwanted invitations for dates or sex, intrusive questions about an employee’s private life or unnecessary familiarity.

Yep, even leering can be considered harassment.

3. It only happened once so I shouldn’t complain. It probably won’t happen again.

“Just one incident is enough. Although some people might ignore one incident of sexual harassment, the important thing is that it doesn’t need to be repeated to be unwelcome conduct. If you can possibly tell a person you didn’t like their comment or behaviour, often that stops the behaviour being repeated,” Ms Jenkins said. (Research shows almost half of all sexual harassment at work stops after a complaint is made.)

4. I don’t want to complain because I don’t want to get my colleague/boss in trouble. I just want it to go away.

“The critical thing to say here is that that anyone who makes a complaint of sexual harassment is supported by the legislation. It’s true that people often feel their job is in danger, particularly when we know that sexual harassment often comes from a manager or senior manager to more junior staff. But there is provision under the Equal Opportunity Act which protects against victimisation should a person press ahead with a formal complaint,” she said.


5. Maybe the perpetrator thought I had been flirting with them. Maybe I caused it.

“The troubling aspect of this response is there is a sense of victim (self) blaming. Sexual harassment is unlawful and you should not feel like it is your fault. The more important point here is that people should be aware of appropriate boundaries and workplace behaviours,” Ms Jenkins said.

Sexual harassment is unlawful and employers and managers must legally take reasonable measures to eliminate it.

sexual harassment at work
Image: Australian Human Rights Commission.


For more information or advice, check out the Australian Human Rights Commission website.


Want to read more about sexual harassment? Try these articles:

Robbie Williams and his wife are being sued for sexual harassment.

She complained about sexual harassment. Her workplace said, “get on with it”.

If a woman is “okay” with it, is this still sexual harassment?

Have you been sexually harassed at work? I have.

More female doctors speak of sex harassment in Australian hospitals.

Have you experienced sexual harassment at work?