Home Opinion/Commentary Tech-based sexual harassment at work is common, male-dominated and often intended to cause harm

Tech-based sexual harassment at work is common, male-dominated and often intended to cause harm

by The Conversation
By Asher Flynn, Monash University; Anastasia Powell, RMIT University, and Lisa J. Wheildon, Monash University

Sexual harassment is often considered to be a person-to-person act, but new research shows Australians are also experiencing and perpetrating workplace harassment in large numbers through technology.

Our latest study shows one in seven Australian adults surveyed reported having engaged in workplace tech-based sexual harassment. One in eight reported having engaged in both tech-based and in-person sexual harassment at work.

The research, launched today by ANROWS, is the first national study to investigate the perpetration of workplace tech-based sexual harassment. We found hostile motivations underpinning the behaviour, including wanting to frighten and humiliate victims.

Tech-based workplace harassment is common

We conducted a national perpetration survey with 3,345 Australian adults (18-65 years) who had participated in paid or voluntary work in the last 15 years. We also interviewed 20 industry stakeholders, including employer representatives, technology providers, regulators and workplace and online safety experts; and ran focus groups with 28 young adults (18-39 years).

The most common types of tech-based sexual harassment at work reported were:

  • sending someone sexually suggestive or explicit comments via technologies (such as emails, SMS messages or social media)
  • repeatedly inviting someone to go out on dates via technology
  • making sexually explicit phone calls.

When engaging in these behaviours, perpetrators used their work email (31%), personal phone or mobile (29%), personal email (26%), and work phone or mobile (25%). The majority of perpetrators said that their behaviour was a “one-off” incident (60%).

However, one in three acknowledged that they had engaged in tech-based sexual harassment towards a colleague on more than one occasion.

The findings align with other research on workplace harassment. According to 2022 figures from the Australian Human Rights Commission, one in three Australians have experienced workplace sexual harassment in the past five years. The same study found women (41%) are more likely to report experiencing workplace sexual harassment than men (26%).

To date, workplace sexual harassment has centred primarily around in-person or face-to-face forms of unwelcome and/or threatening sexual conduct. But as our reliance on technology in workplaces has increased, so too have tech-based forms of workplace sexual harassment. That is, sexual harassment that is perpetrated using mobile, online and other digital technologies in a workplace context.

What is workplace tech-based sexual harassment?

Workplace tech-based sexual harassment can include a wide range of behaviours within and beyond the physical location of the workplace. It can take place during or after working hours.

It can include:

  • unwelcome sexual advances, comments and jokes
  • sexual requests
  • relational pursuit (including monitoring or stalking behaviours)
  • sexually explicit and abusive communications
  • threats of physical violence such as rape
  • the non-consensual taking, sharing or threat to share nude or sexual images (also known as image-based abuse).

Harassment can be instigated by co-workers, contractors, suppliers, customers, clients, and members of the community. It can include, for example, sharing sexually suggestive or explicit comments or images about a public or high-profile figure, such as a journalist or politician, due to their work.

Is gender an issue?

Clear gendered patterns emerged in the study. These included that men (24%) were significantly more likely than women (7%) to report engaging in tech-based sexual harassment at work. Men (10%) were more likely than women (3%) to report engaging in both tech-based and in-person workplace sexual harassment. It also most commonly occurred when the gender composition of the workplace was male-dominated (45%) or had roughly equal numbers of men and women (38%), as opposed to the workplace composition being female-dominated (16%).

There were also gendered differences in perceptions of how the behaviour would be viewed and experienced by the victim. Overall, men were significantly more likely than women to minimise a victim’s perceptions of the act, for example, by thinking the person would be flattered or okay with it. Men were also more likely to hold negative feelings towards the victim, such as wanting to humiliate or frighten them.

Why do people sexually harass in the workplace?

One of the key findings to emerge from the study was the high rates of hostile motivations underpinning the behaviour. More than one in four of those who had engaged in tech-based sexual harassment at work said they did so to: “frighten” (30%), “humiliate” (30%), “express their anger towards” (30%), “hurt the feelings of” (30%) or “annoy” (31%) the victim.

The high level of hostile motivations challenges some of the common myths around sexually harassing behaviour. For example, it is often thought that someone engages in sexual harassment because they want to have a sexual or personal relationship with the person. Instead, our findings highlight how these behaviours form part of a pattern of sexual violence designed to humiliate, degrade and cause harm to the victim. https://www.youtube.com/embed/3hjWosUyfm0?wmode=transparent&start=0

We also found similar patterns in the indicators of perpetration. Those respondents with a high endorsement of sexist and gender-discriminatory attitudes, such as “women often flirt with men just to be hurtful” and “in the workplace, men generally make more capable bosses than women”, were over 15 times more likely to report perpetrating tech-based sexual harassment at work than those with low endorsement of these attitudes.

Similarly, respondents with a high endorsement of sexual harassment myths, such as believing “women enjoy being hit on at work” or that “stopping sexual harassment at work is as simple as telling your colleague you’re not interested”, were almost five times more likely to report engaging in tech-based sexual harassment at work than those with low endorsement of these myths.

This suggests that there are cultural and social norm challenges to be addressed by governments and workplaces in preventing sexual harassment of this kind.

Of further concern, less than half (39%) of those who disclosed engaging in tech-based sexual harassment at work said that a formal report or complaint had been made against them for their behaviour. This finding suggests there is a significant problem with workplace cultures and highlights potential gaps in appropriate internal and external responses.

Where to from here?

Employers, technology providers, and government policy and legislation must take a combination of actions to address tech-based sexual harassment at work. These include

  • clarity in workplace policies
  • greater awareness of the changing nature of workplace sexual harassment (including the use of technologies)
  • improved reporting options for victims and bystanders in the workplace
  • proportional and consistent responses to those who use tech-based sexual harassment at work
  • proactive steps to improve workplace cultures that promote equality and respect.

There are a range of challenges, particularly given how significantly workplace communication has changed in recent years. At the same time, industry (employer, technology platforms and government) responses have yet to keep pace.

However, new laws introduced in 2022 require employers to take proactive steps to eliminate sexual harassment. In addition, the Australian Human Rights Commission has new powers to investigate and enforce compliance.

These changes may provide the opportunity for new actions and responses to address and prevent tech-based sexual harassment in the workplace.

Asher Flynn, Associate Professor of Criminology, Monash University; Anastasia Powell, Professor, Family and Sexual Violence, RMIT University, and Lisa J. Wheildon, Research Project Officer, Monash University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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