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Eliminating workplace sexual harassment

Our vision: For all workplaces to be safe and free of sexual harassment and for all employers take steps to prevent harassment occurring and respond to harassment appropriately if it does occur.

The problem

Our current system for dealing with workplace sexual harassment places a heavy burden on individuals to make complaints, but doesn’t ask enough of employers to prevent harassment in the first place.

Sexual harassment at work is widespread and has serious impacts

At a national level, one in three people (33 per cent) experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years – a significant increase from 11 per cent in 2003. While it is unclear whether this is due to an increase in sexually harassing behaviours, or to greater awareness of the types of behaviours that constitute sexual harassment, this is clearly a problem that affects millions of Australians.

Eighty-five per cent of Australian women have been sexually harassed at work at some point in their lives.

Research clearly demonstrates the social, physical, emotional and economic costs of sexual harassment on individuals, organisations and the broader community. For example, the most common consequences of sexual harassment are the adverse impact on a person’s mental health, self-esteem and confidence, and employment, career or work. 

Sexual harassment is under-reported

The majority of people who are sexually harassed at work do not make a formal report or seek support or advice. For example, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 national survey showed that fewer than one in five people (17 per cent) who were sexually harassed at work in the previous five years made a formal report or complaint.

There are many reasons why individuals do not report sexual harassment, including uncertainty about the law, harmful community attitudes, fear of victimisation, lack of job security, inadequate support to make a complaint, lack of faith in the complaint system, trauma and shame.

Sexual harassment disproportionally affects some people, and it’s often combined with other types of discrimination

Sexual harassment disproportionately affects some people including women, young people, LGBTIQ people, people with a disability, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and people from multicultural and multifaith backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by sexual harassment.

Often sexual harassment is experienced together with other forms of discrimination such as discrimination on the basis of race, religion, disability and sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Commission needs stronger powers to enforce the law

While the Commission uses its education, dispute resolution and independent review functions to facilitate compliance with the Equal Opportunity Act, we have limited powers to enforce the law and address systemic issues.

The solution

The Commission’s powers to enforce the law should be strengthened

Strengthening our enforcement powers would enable us to enforce compliance with the law and ensure organisations are taking necessary steps to prevent harassment from occurring.

The Commission should be empowered to undertake public inquiries, require people to attend or provide documents or information for the purposes of an inquiry and require organisations to make changes to their policies and processes for managing sexual harassment that is enforceable at VCAT.

These powers will enable the Commission to target the underlying issues that perpetuate systemic discrimination and sexual harassment.

Our work

Our role is to protect and promote human rights and eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, to the greatest extent possible. We use a range of functions to advocate for the elimination of sexual harassment.

The Commission is currently updating its guidelines on preventing and responding to sexual harassment, and complying with the positive duty in the Equal Opportunity Act

Throughout the year we deliver face-to-face education sessions covering workplace sexual harassment. In 2019, we delivered 136 sessions to 2025 people across the public and private sectors. This continued the 147 education sessions we delivered in 2018, attended by 2218 people.

The Commission also made a submission to the national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, making 15 recommendations. The Australian Human Rights Commission supported many of our recommendations and ultimately made a recommendation for an enforceable positive duty to prevent workplace sexual harassment. Our submission to the exposure draft of the Gender Equality Bill in 2018 also made recommendations to strengthen the Equal Opportunity Act.

In 2018, the Commission developed ‘Raise it: Conversations about sexual harassment and workplace equality’ which was piloted in seven workplaces.

In 2015, we commenced an independent review into the nature, extent, drivers and impact of sexual harassment (and sex discrimination) in Victoria Police. The third report from our review was published in August 2019 and assessed the current state of gender equality, including in relation to sexual harassment, in Victoria Police. We also audited the extent of its implementation of our recommendations from Phase 1 of the review.

Related interventions

In 2015, we intervened in Collins v Smith to provide guidance to VCAT on awarding compensation for sexual harassment.

Related resources

Guideline: Preventing and responding to workplace sexual harassment – Complying with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 – Aug 2020


Level 3, 204 Lygon Street Carlton Victoria 3053

General enquiries

1300 891 848

Enquiry line
1300 292 153 or (03) 9032 3583

1300 152 494

NRS Voice Relay
1300 555 727 then use 1300 292 153

Media enquiries
0447 526 642

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians and recognises their culture, history, diversity and deep connection to the land.

We acknowledge that the Commission is on the land of the Kulin Nation and pay our respects to Elders past and present.