‘Gender is at play’ in workplace sexual harassment complaints

By Naomi Neilson|03 December 2019

Gender inequality at the top of the workplace, particularly in managerial and leadership positions, is still a key driver in the proliferation of sexual harassment complaints.

This was one of the major points to come out of sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins' keynote address at the Not In My Workplace Summit. Ms Jenkins said sexism goes hand in hand with sexual harassment and is made even harder by the major lack of female leadership at the top of the organisation to process complaints.

“Men are still in charge. We expected gender equality would be flushed out. The reality is that men still, by and large, hold the majority of the leadership positions, they’re still predominant in managerial roles and the reality is that men are more likely to question a complaint of sexual harassment than a female manager,” Ms Jenkins said.

She pointed out this is not a statistic that sits with all male managers, but research to be released next February found female managers are more likely to take a complaint without question and male managers will place onus on the victim.


In all sexual harassment cases, “gender is at play”. Research from the Australian Human Rights Commission found 51 per cent of women have either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, so much so it is now a “common work experience”.

“Sexual harassment is repeated and ongoing. The statistics tell us that 49 per cent of people who have been harassed have been harassed more than one time. Thirty per cent have been harassed for at least over a two-year period,” Ms Jenkins said.

The research found victims “absolutely do not want to complain”, due to fear of being discriminated based on a complaint or a lack of trust in the system.

Ms Jenkins said this is not likely to change, as Australians do not want to complain on something they believe will not change. A fear of negative consequences comes from a “lack of confidence in the system or the manager” that is being reported to.

“The majority of people, despite all these systems and contact officers and HR, will go directly to their manager or supervisor,” Ms Jenkins said, and then pointed to: “I have heard across the country that they are often the people most scared to take a report.”


Even if a report is taken, complaint systems are not focused on the welfare of all staff. Victims have reported feeling ignored or taken for granted, but staff around them are also affected negatively by a lot of the major complaint systems at work. The complaint process tends to “sideline” the victim while the investigation takes place.

Then there is the issue of consequences for perpetrators being really low. Ms Jenkins said often its settlements or pay outs to see the victim move on from their role.

“The other thing we heard broadly from people experiencing sexual harassment is it’s really confusing to work out what your rights are and what supports are available. We know that there’s human rights laws and sex discrimination act and safety laws and the fair work ombudsman, and pretty much everyone we spoke to said they thought they needed a lawyer to make a sexual harassment complaint,” Ms Jenkins said.

She said that if a victim needs a lawyer to make a complaint, the majority may not exercise their right in the first place out of fear of this system.

“I have heard the appetite is there. Lots of action has been taken, there has been the policies and online training, there has been complaint procedures, there’s been people stressing you need to use the complaints procedures,” Ms Jenkins said.

“What we’ve heard is we need to shift responsibility from the victim, who at the moment is expected to report in and help the employer, to the workplace and to the employer.”

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‘Gender is at play’ in workplace sexual harassment complaints
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