Study to examine lasting impact of sexual harassment

Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Associate Professor Paula McDonald, who is 18 months into a three-year Australian Research Council-funded study on Sexual Harassment in Australia, said little was known about the impact of sexual harassment on victims.

“We really don’t know what happens to people in the longer-term to their emotional state, family relationships, employment situation and finances,” she said.

“There is often significant psychological trauma associated with being sexually harassed and a real undermining of confidence. It may be that there are also knock-on effects, such as time out of the workforce, which affects people’s career opportunities and financial situations.”

Professor McDonald, from QUT’s School of Management, said at least 60 participants were needed to take part in the study, which she said would raise awareness of a wide-spread problem.

A 2008 Australian Human Right Commission survey showed about 22 per cent of women and 5 per cent of men had been sexually harassed. However, only 16 per cent had made any kind of complaint.

“The cases that are formally reported are only the tip of the iceberg,” Professor McDonald said.

“There is a fear of retaliation that occurs all too frequently. They may be disbelieved, treated as being a ‘problem’ for making a complaint, or moved to another work area or dismissed on the back of claims of ‘poor performance’.

“If we understand the impact of sexual harassment on victims, it sends a message to would-be perpetrators and to organisations about the seriousness of the issue.”

Professor McDonald is analysing about 350 sexual harassment cases brought before equal opportunity commissions across Australia for the study, which is being conducted with Associate Professor Sara Charlesworth from the University of South Australia.

The researchers have interviewed more than 60 professionals who advocated for complainants or respondents in sexual harassment cases, including senior managers, barristers and union officials.

These experts believed larger, corporate organisations had improved their response to sexual harassment cases, dealing with issues more quickly and sensitively and providing better training to prevent the problem.

However, they also acknowledged that sexual harassment continued to occur across a wide range of workplaces, particularly in male-dominated work settings and small businesses, where policies were often not as well developed and the boss or manager may be the harasser.

To take part in these confidential phone interviews, contact Associate Professor Paula McDonald at (07) 3138 5318 or [email protected] or University of SA Associate Professor Charlesworth at (08) 8302 4197, [email protected]

Media contact: Stephanie Harrington, 3138 1150, [email protected]