HR: don’t overlook ‘unlikely’ sexual harassment victims

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A new study on sexual harassment has revealed that one in ten workplace complaints are made by men and academics are urging HR to take action.

The investigation, conducted by Queensland University of Technology (QUT)’s Business School, found that women were accused of sexually harassing men in 5 per cent of cases while men were accused of harassing other men in 11 per cent of cases.

Six per cent of cases were also allegations of women being harassed by other women.

Published in the Work, Employment and Society journal, 'Workplace sexual harassment at the margins' analysed sexual harassment complaints lodged with Australian Equal Opportunity Commissions (EOCs) over a period of six months.

Co-authors and academics Paula McDonald and Sara Charlesworth say the study should remind employers that, while it may be far less common, men are far from exempt when it comes to workplace harassment.

 “Men are overwhelmingly responsible for sexual harassment against women in the workplace, but men are also the targets of sexual harassment far more commonly than typically assumed by researchers or the community at large,” said McDonald.

“It is important to shine a light on these less typical manifestations, including sexual harassment by men of other men and by women of men or other women, which are often less visible and may be less understood,” she added.

The study also revealed that the majority of sexual harassment allegations were being made against individuals in more senior positions.

“This was particularly noticeable in female to female complaints, where 90% of complaints were made by subordinates against supervisors,” McDonald revealed.

“Previous research has shown that in certain contexts women may be encouraged to perform as ‘honorary men’, adopting sexualised banter to maintain authority and ‘fit in’ with the dominant male gender culture,” she continued. “This was clearly illustrated in the female-to-female complaints in the study.”

Male-to-male harassment complaints often stemmed from intimidation or the questioning of men’s sexuality.

For example, one male complainant alleged his female manager asked him to lift his shirt and show her his muscles, as well as shouting at him and humiliating him in front of co-workers.

Another man alleged his male co-worker called him "princess", and told him to "toughen up" and that he would rape him.

According to McDonald, the various complaints were characterised by a “wide range of intimidating, offensive physical and non-physical conduct” in a “variety of workplaces”.

The most frequently reported form of physical harassment – the root of 40% of complaints in the ‘male-to-female group’ and one in three cases of the ‘female-to-female group’ – was unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing.

“This study showed that regardless of the sex of the complainant or alleged harasser, sexual harassment causes significant psychological and workplace damage and that it is under-reported compared to its prevalence in workplaces,” said McDonald.

“It is difficult to measure prevalence but a recent survey indicated around 25% of women and 16% of men reported having experienced workplace sexual harassment in the last five years,” she continued.

“It is vital workplaces have supportive complaints mechanisms, including for men, who may find about it more difficult to report sexual harassment,” she added.

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