Workplace sexual harassment affects women in varied and complex ways

Opinion pieces
Topics Gender

This article originally appeared in Daily Life on March 8.

By Lisa Annese, CEO, DCA

Despite #MeToo, sexual harassment is still everywhere. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, in the last 12 months, 23 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men have experienced sexual harassment at work in Australia.

While the stats show men are affected, it’s women who bear the brunt – and the perpetrators of harassment of any gender are overwhelmingly male.

Still, there’s a feeling that women lie. Or make up stories. Or just want attention. Or, if proven right, were asking for it somehow.

This is not correct.

The tendency to dismiss legitimate complaints of harassment sends a powerful message to women: do not speak, you won’t be believed, you’ll be branded a trouble maker, you’ll ruin your prospects.

It bears out in the phrases such as "you can’t even give a woman a compliment anymore", implying women are so hypersensitive that kindness is misconstrued as harassment. I challenge anyone to find me an example of where natural friendship or kindness has ever been substantiated as sexual harassment. It’s a myth.

In my experience, it is far, far more likely women will not report rather than report vexatiously.

It all goes to show that some people still don’t really understand all the ways – professional, psychological and emotional – that sexual harassment does damage.

If you’re a man reading this, I implore you: don't believe the myths. There are so many ways in which your simple act of sexually harassing a woman could change the course of her career and her life – not to mention yours.

Sexist ‘jokes’ have deep psychological impact

It’s so easy to dismiss a couple of jokes or comments as insignificant. But casual jokes or comments repeated over time have a cumulative effect. Research shows exposure to frequent small incidents such as sexist jokes or comments causes just as much damage over time as a one-off, more extreme experience, such as unwanted sexual touching or threatening retaliation for lack of sexual favours.

In fact, all forms of sexism have been shown to be equally harmful to people’s workplace wellbeing – resulting in mental and physical health problems, lower life satisfaction, and dissatisfaction with jobs, organisations and relationships with colleagues.

Sexual harassment has a real cost

Sexual harassment has a serious and damaging effect on a workplace, on staff morale and engagement and on an organisation’s brand and image.

Witnesses of sexual harassment can experience "bystander stress", which is associated with lower health satisfaction, increased occupational stress, increased team conflict, and lower financial performance. Diversity Council Australia’s [email protected] Index shows that respectful workplaces improve engagement for both women and men equally.

Then there’s the loss of female talent. Victims often leave their jobs rather than take action against a harasser. Research has shown that in most cases, women tend to make lateral moves or take pay cuts, creating a "predator tax".

Predation is linked with power and career progression

Sexual harassment is a form of dominance, control and power, and, in many ways, it can shape a woman’s participation in and ascension at work.

It’s no surprise that harassment flourishes in workplaces where men dominate in management and women have little say. In these workplaces, women have less ability to speak up and influence change. Even decent men feel pressure to accept other men’s sexualised behaviour.

A recent ad by Gillette appealing to men’s better sense of themselves was viewed with fear, panic and derision by those seeking to maintain the status quo. And, yet, toxic masculine behaviour deprives men as well as women of leading safe and happy lives where they can fulfil their potential. Healthy masculinity is a goal worth striving for and it is consistent with the need to create respectful environments where women can flourish too.

With so much at stake for everyone, expressions like "boys will be boys" are no longer a valid defence for unwelcome, offensive and unsafe behaviour that demeans and makes the workplace unsafe.

The personal and professional cost is too high.


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