Sexual harassment complainants get labeled troublemakers

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In an ideal world, victims would be helped and perpetrators would be reprimanded. But a new Australian report shows women who complain about sexual harassment at work often suffer more unjust treatment in the workplace.

The Australian Human Rights Commission report found that more than one in five women experienced sexual harassment at work – yet only 20% of those affected made a formal complaint.

Almost a third of those who did complain (29%) said they were penalised for complaining, almost twice as many as the 16% who reported negative consequences in 2003. From being ostracised and talked about by coworkers, to being demoted for speaking up – the message for these women was that they should have stayed quiet.

The most common types of sexual harassment include sexually suggestive comments or jokes, inappropriate leering or staring, intrusive questions about physical appearance and sexually explicit emails or text messages. However, people who reported receiving sexually explicit emails or text messages dropped from 22% to 17% between 2008 and 2012.

Progress in actually combating sexual harassment has come to a standstill, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said. “This research is conducted every four years and shows that little has changed. Approximately one in five people aged 15 years and older were sexually harassed in the workplace in the past five years, an extraordinary figure.”

One of the most encouraging parts of the research was that 51% of people who were bystanders took some action to prevent or reduce the harm of the sexual harassment they were aware of, she said. “Bystanders have an extremely important role to play in confronting and combatting sexual harassment – but they needed to be supported and empowered, which would mean a huge shift in organisational culture.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Human Rights Commission received a total of 70 sexual harassment complaints in 2011 and 2012, putting sexual harassment as the number one sex discrimination issue. However notably, over the last four years, sexual harassment complaints received by the Commission reduced in number by just under a quarter (23%).

It was astounding that sexual harassment continued to be a problem in New Zealand organisations given the huge amount of material available relating to prevention and safety, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Dr Judy McGregor said. “I am mindful that the numbers who come to the Commission and other bodies are only the tip of the iceberg. Women who face sexual harassment at work often simply end up leaving the organisation."

Information on how to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace [in New Zealand] is available from the Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

*New Zealand reporting by Miriam Bell



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