WHS Issues: Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

WHS Issues: Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Gender discrimination and sexual harassment are two serious issues that can be an insidious poison in a workplace. Apart from legal consequences (which can be serious for the employees involved, as well as their employer), sexual harassment and gender discrimination can also cause significant long term harm to the victim and have wider social impacts.

What is Gender Discrimination and Sexual Harassment?

What is Gender Discrimination?

Gender discrimination occurs when a person is treated less favourably than a person of the opposite gender would be in the same, or similar, situation.

Gender discrimination can be clear and direct – for example, a group of men and women are doing identical jobs yet all the male employees are paid more for the same work. It can also be less clear but still have a pronounced effect – for example, a policy or rule is implemented uniformly in a workplace, but has an unfair effect on one gender over the other.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks in a workplace, or other professional or social situation. Sexual harassment is commonly directed at women, but can affect people of all sexes and sexual orientations.

Sexual harassment can include behaviours such as:

  •  Requests for sex,
  •  Unwelcome physical contact,
  •  Suggestive jokes or comments,
  •  Unwanted requests to go out on dates,
  •  Inappropriate promises of rewards in return for sexual favours,
  •  Sending texts with sexually explicit content,
  •  Emailing rude/sexual jokes or pornography,
  •  Staring,
  •  Leering,
  •  Asking intrusive personal questions about a person’s private life or body,
  •  Displaying images of a sexual nature (eg posters, magazines, screen savers, calendars)

Effects of sexual harassment and gender discrimination

Two studies on sexual harassment were completed in 1998, covering 16 countries in Europe. The EU Commission summary of these studies found that almost all people suffering sexual harassment experienced negative consequences as a result. This extended to not only their professional life, but also their personal lives.  Victims reported loss of self-esteem, psychosomatic symptoms and interference with their personal life. Significantly, women were also more likely to experience negatives consequences affecting their career than their harassers.

Victims can also experience loss of income when they take unpaid leave or sick leave as a result of harassment, or find themselves out of work when they are forced quit their job or transfer employment to escape. There are also less direct effects that can cause financial losses or affect careers – loss of references or recommendations, or being excluded from professional circles.

Business productivity and the bottom line is also directly affected by sexual harassment; through absenteeism, reduced job satisfaction, higher staff turnover, early retirement, premature ill-health, increased insurance rates, and the cost of legal defense and liability for sexual harassment claims. Incidences of sexual harassment and discrimination may also be damaging to brands and corporate images. Beyond that, organisations may feel a strong moral responsibility to safeguard their employees from discriminatory or harassing behaviours.

What can be done?

Society and culture changes over time; behaviours once seen as acceptable become taboo. Due to the financial and social effects of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, many organisations have taken note of these issues. According to the Society for Human Resource Management:

  •  62 percent of companies have implemented prevention training programs for sexual harassment, and
  •  97 percent have created a written sexual harassment policy.

Many countries, like Australia, have implemented laws that lay out the rights and responsibilities of individuals and organisations. The Australian Sex Discrimination Act covers issues such as sexual harassment, gender discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, family responsibilities discrimination, and more. The Act has provisions for discrimination in many areas of life, including employment, education, accommodation and getting, or using, services.

Know your rights

It’s important that you (no matter how you identify yourself sexually, and whether you are an employee, employer, customer or other stakeholder) know your rights and responsibilities when it comes to sexual harassment and discrimination. The Australian Human Rights Commission has a “Know Your Rights” fact page which includes contact details if you need more information. You can check it out @ Australian Human Rights Commission – Know Your Rights.



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