Government and governance, Trade and industry, Law, Social policy, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia, The World

5 March 2020

Women are disproportionately affected by sexual harassment in the workplace at great cost to their physical and mental health. A new approach to change work culture is needed to address the issue, Yana Rodgers and Debra Lancaster write.

International Women’s Day is a timely opportunity to recognise that women around the world face sexual harassment in the workplace, and to commit the resources needed to advance prevention strategies. Not only does sexual harassment negatively impact women’s health and well-being, it also has harmful economic effects for individuals, organisations, and society as a whole. This is not a problem that will be solved through ‘check the box’ compliance training or simple ‘zero tolerance’ policies.

Sexual harassment is pervasive. Anywhere between 25 to 85 per cent of all women, depending on sampling strategies and definitions, experience sexual harassment in the workplace. The #MeToo movement, in particular, has given voice to these statistics and has shown that sexual harassment cuts across all industries and levels.

It happens in every industry and in both small and large businesses. Sexual harassment can come from supervisors and managers, but also from colleagues, and from third parties like clients, customers, and patients.

More on this: The world as a hostile workplace

While both men and women are victims, available evidence indicates that the incidence of sexual harassment is higher among women than men, and that it is higher among minorities and individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

A growing body of research is demonstrating that sexual harassment has negative effects on health. Poor health outcomes include anxiety, depression, inadequate sleep, obesity, increased smoking, pain disorders, and high blood pressure. For example, a survey of over 300 women found that those who had experienced sexual harassment had a higher incidence of hypertension as well as poor sleep compared to women who had not experienced sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment also has harmful economic effects for individuals, organisations, and society as a whole. For students, sexual harassment is associated with disengagement from classes and poorer school performance. For those in the labour market, sexual harassment is associated with reduced job satisfaction, increased absenteeism, deterioration in relationships with colleagues, job changes, and even exits from well-paying careers.

Women who experience sexual harassment are more likely to leave their jobs, whether to avoid their harasser or because of frustration with their employer’s response. Such exits often result in the loss of firm-specific tenure, employment gaps, severed professional networks, and financial insecurity.

More on this: #MeToo: A mixed response from Pakistan

These outcomes, in turn, interfere with long-term career advancement, especially if women have trouble finding comparable work. Sexual harassment also hurts the bottom line of organisations, through higher employee turnover, lower productivity, absenteeism, and greater legal costs.

There is no quick fix to preventing sexual and gender-based harassment. Research has shown that some institutionalised compliance training programs and ‘zero tolerance’ policies are ineffective, and that they can even make the problem worse. Achieving change is going to take a change of culture in Australia’s workplaces. Beyond that, it demands adapting legal structures that are more inclusive of all workers.

Steps toward changing culture in the workplace include designing and implementing clear, strong, and comprehensive sexual harassment policies, and having individuals in leadership positions allocate more resources toward strict enforcement of the organisation’s sexual harassment policies. It also means applying immediate and appropriate disciplinary procedures toward perpetrators, having a clear and accessible complaint process, and conducting regular training that is updated as needed.

Relying on legal systems alone will not be enough to reduce the prevalence of sexual harassment. It is also going to take developing a better understanding of what prevention strategies are best at protecting workers from sexual harassment, like the meaningful implementation of bystander intervention programs that allow victims of sexual harassment to view everyone as a potential ally in preventing and combating the problem. Further, any policy must give workplaces and victims the tools and skills to address harassment.

Women who have shared their voices and experiences through the #MeToo movement, as well as those who came earlier, have done their job.

Workplaces across the world need a commitment of resources and investment from a range of stakeholders, including government, to advance both understanding in this area and prevention strategies. Then, policymakers must harness the evidence on what works and make it accessible and actionable. They must respond to the issue with a seriousness it demands: sexual harassment is a public health crisis.

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