Sexual Harassment in the Victorian Public Service

Tabled: 28 November 2019

2 Prevalence of sexual harassment

To address sexual harassment in their workplaces, departments must first understand its prevalence. They can then:

  • identify trends and key demographics
  • identify high-risk groups in their workforce
  • determine whether prevention initiatives are working.

Departments rely on those who experience or witness sexual harassment to report these matters. This enables departments to measure the prevalence of sexual harassment in their organisation. Staff can report sexual harassment by making a complaint to their department or by taking part in surveys.

We assessed complaints and survey data to measure the prevalence of sexual harassment in the departments. We also assessed whether departments understand the prevalence of sexual harassment in their organisations and can identify and act on high-risk areas in their workforce.

2.1 Conclusion

Sexual harassment occurs in every department. Approximately one in 14 respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to the 2019 PMS. The 2019 PMS also shows that certain groups of people are at increased risk of sexual harassment, such as those with a self-described gender identity or LGBTIQ individuals and young women.

Since 2016, the PMS has reported a reduction in the percentage of departmental respondents experiencing sexual harassment. While positive, more data is needed to feel confident that this is a sustained trend.

While the PMS provides data on high-risk demographics and poorly performing business units, it shows that formal complaints are significantly underreported. The underreporting, coupled with inadequate systems to capture informal complaints, means that the ability of departments to understand sexual harassment prevalence and proactively identify and act on sexual harassment is limited.

2.2 How common is sexual harassment?

One way that departments can measure the prevalence of sexual harassment is through survey data. The most comprehensive survey in Victoria is the annual PMS, due to its high response rates. The PMS has included questions on sexual harassment since 2016.

Prevalence in the public service

The VPSC runs the PMS across Victorian public sector agencies. Within the seven departments, 19 821 employees responded to the 2019 survey. This reflects a response rate of 56 per cent.

In Victoria, 7 per cent of departmental respondents to the 2019 PMS—or one in 14 respondents—reported experiencing sexual harassment in the past 12 months. This is down from 11 per cent of respondents in 2016, which is a statistically significant decrease. However, it is too soon to determine if sexual harassment is decreasing in Victorian departments in a sustained manner, as only four years of data is available. This is illustrated in Figure 2A.

Figure 2A
Departmental respondents who have experienced sexual harassment

Figure 2A shows departmental respondents who have experienced sexual harassment

Source: VAGO analysis of PMS data 2016–19.

Factors that could influence this decrease include communication and initiatives to address sexual harassment that departments have implemented over the past four years. We discuss these measures further in Part 4.

Prevalence in other states

The VPSC was one of the first government agencies in Australia to include questions on sexual harassment in its survey of government staff. Four states—including Victoria—report publicly on rates of sexual harassment in their public service. The Australian Public Service (APS) also reports its results. The results are shown in Figure 2B.

Figure 2B
Sexual harassment prevalence across public services

State

Respondents who experienced sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to the relevant survey

Queensland

1% of respondents

—Working for Queensland survey 2018

South Australia

3% of respondents

—I work for SA – Your Voice Survey 2018

Tasmania

2% of respondents

—State Service Employee Survey 2018

APS

3.3% of respondents

—APS Employee census 2018.

Victoria

9.4% of respondents

—PMS 2018

Note: Response rates—Queensland (44%), South Australia (22%), Tasmania (30%), APS (74%), Victoria (56%).
Source: VAGO.

Differing survey design across the states may explain Victoria's higher results. In Victoria, the survey asks whether respondents have experienced certain types of behaviours—such as inappropriate touching, sexually suggestive comments, or sexually explicit messages. In contrast, other states' surveys do not ask about certain behaviours, but instead ask whether a respondent has experienced sexual harassment. As highlighted by the AHRC in its national survey, respondents may be more likely to say that they have experienced different types of behaviours than say they have experienced sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment experiences

Responses to our survey and public submission process show that individual experiences of sexual harassment can vary greatly:

  • I have witnessed a manager saying that the only good place for a female is in a porn movie.
  • … one of them manipulated caseloads to allow himself to be near a young married woman who he fancied.
  • … when talking about work to be done she would suggestively comment about how I was on her 'to do list'.
  • When greeting me, he would often touch my waist and one time he tickled me while I was seated.
  • He pressed his penis against me when I was bending over to pick something up, and he asked me 'is that your preferred position'.
  • I was repeatedly asked out on a date by a colleague who also contacted me at home and spoke to my children.
  • He then began to send me SMSs after hours, including the middle of the night, of a sexual nature.

The 2019 PMS found that the types of sexual harassment most commonly experienced by respondents were intrusive comments and questions of a sexual nature, as shown in Figure 2C.

Figure 2C
Types of sexual harassment experienced by departmental respondents

Figure 2C shows the types of sexual harassment experienced by departmental respondents

Note: n=1 465. Respondents could select more than one type.
Source: VAGO analysis of PMS data 2019.

In our survey, we found that there are some forms of sexual harassment that respondents perceived as 'less serious' than other types. However, these behaviours must be addressed, as the negative impact on those who experience them can be high. A meta-analysis conducted by Sojo, Wood and Genat from the University of Melbourne (2015) found that frequent experiences of sexual harassment that some people may term as 'less serious' had similar negative impacts on a person's wellbeing to a 'more serious' experience. All forms of sexual harassment are serious, and departments should address them.

Prevalence within departments

The VPSC provides departments with detailed reports on their PMS results. The reports show the rates of sexual harassment by group, division, branch, team, or unit, where the number of respondents is greater than 10.

Participation in the PMS is voluntary. DoT did not participate in the 2019 PMS, due to the timing of machinery of government changes resulting in large-scale organisational change. As such, we have no data to confirm the prevalence of sexual harassment in this department.

Figure 2D shows the percentage of respondents in each department who reported that they had experienced sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to the 2019 PMS. As departments had different survey response rates, we have presented results within a margin of error. The results reveal that:

  • the difference in rates of sexual harassment reported by respondents at DPC, DET and DELWP are not statistically significant
  • DJCS respondents experienced the highest rates of sexual harassment compared to other departments. This is statistically significant. DJCS staff who work in prisons or with past offenders experience higher rates of sexual harassment, so we have separated these respondents.

Figure 2D
Respondents in each department who experienced sexual harassment

Figure 2D shows respondents in each department who experienced sexual harassment

Note: Results presented within a margin of error due to varied response rates. The line represents the upper and lower bound of results with a 95% confidence interval.
Source: VAGO analysis of PMS data 2019.

2.3 Employees at high risk

Any employee can experience sexual harassment. However, the 2019 PMS shows that certain groups of respondents are at higher risk, as shown in Figure 2E.

Figure 2E
Groups at higher risk

Attribute

Experienced sexual harassment (%)

Compared to

Self-described gender identity(a)

26

6 per cent of respondents who identified as men and 8 per cent of respondents who identified as women

LGBTIQ sexual orientation

13

7 per cent of opposite-sex attracted respondents

24 years of age or under (all genders)

12

5 per cent of respondents aged 45 years or above.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

12

7 per cent of non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents

Earning less than $75,000

11

3 per cent of respondents earning above $155,000

(a) A low number of respondents had a self-described gender identity (n=80). Because of this low number, there may be uncertainty around the 26%. The 95% confidence interval for the rate is 17 to 37%
Source: VAGO analysis of PMS 2019 data.

Departments can use this information to better target strategies and communication so that they can give the right level of support to everyone. We discuss this further in Part 4.

Gender, age and income

Individuals with a self-described gender identity and young women are at higher risk of experiencing sexual harassment. The PMS data shows that in all age categories, those with a self-described gender identity experienced the highest rates of sexual harassment, followed by women aged 15 to 24.

Figure 2F shows the rates of sexual harassment experienced by men and women in different age brackets.

Figure 2F
Respondents who experienced sexual harassment

Figure 2F shows respondents who experienced sexual harassment

Source: VAGO analysis of PMS data 2019.

We also found that respondents who earned less experienced sexual harassment at a higher rate, as shown in Figure 2G.

Figure 2G
Respondents in each salary bracket who experienced sexual harassment

Figure 2G shows respondents in each salary bracket who experienced sexual harassment

Source: VAGO analysis of PMS data 2019.

2.4 Impact and response

People who experience sexual harassment respond in different ways. Many find that their mental and physical health suffers, as do their personal relationships and careers.

Sexual harassment also affects organisations.

Impact on individuals

Sexual harassment can have a significant impact on an employee's mental and physical health. Through our survey and submission process, respondents shared their experiences and described how sexual harassment impacted their lives.

ImpactOnIndividualsBubbles.PNG

In our survey, 12 per cent of respondents who experienced sexual harassment said they were negatively impacted. These respondents reported the ways that sexual harassment negatively impacted their overall wellbeing.

Reported negative impact

Result (%)

Mental health and caused me stress

68

Self-esteem and confidence

53

Relationship with partner, children, friends, or family

14

Employment, career, or work

46

Financial situation

4

Note: n=167. Respondents could select more than one answer. Results are shown as a percentage of respondents who said they experienced sexual harassment and were negatively impacted.
Source: VAGO survey 2019.

ImpactOnOrganisationsBubbles.PNG

Impact on organisation

At an organisational level, the consequences of sexual harassment can include reduced workforce morale, increased absenteeism, turnover and potential litigation, or reputational costs. From respondents of the 2019 PMS who experienced sexual harassment:

Response to harassment

Result (%)

Took time off work

7

Sought a transfer to another role/location/roster

3

Note: n=1 465. Respondents could select more than one option. Results are shown as a per cent of respondents who said they experienced sexual harassment and were negatively impacted.
Source: VAGO analysis of PMS data 2019.

Response

Where someone said that they had experienced sexual harassment, the 2019 PMS asked how they responded. The top five responses were:

 

Response

Result (%)

1

Pretended it didn't bother you

50

2

Tried to laugh it off or forget about it

38

3

Avoided the person(s) by staying away from them

37

4

Told a colleague

26

5

Told the person the behaviour was not ok

25

Note: n=1 465. Respondents could select more than one option. Results are shown as a percentage of respondents who said they experienced sexual harassment.
Source: VAGO analysis of PMS data 2019.

In the 2019 PMS, of those who said they experienced sexual harassment, 3 per cent also said that they submitted a formal complaint, 2 per cent said they told HR, and 17 per cent told their manager.

Complaints

The number of sexual harassment complaints reported to HR is comparatively low. Figure 2H compares the number of complaints recorded by the departments between July 2016 and March 2019 and the number of respondents who said in the 2019 PMS that they experienced sexual harassment. DJCS and DHHS could not quantify the number of sexual harassment complaints they received, which we discuss further in Section 3.2.

Figure 2H
Formal complaints recorded by departments compared to PMS results

Department

Employees (2019)

Experienced sexual harassment over 12-month period (2019 PMS)(a)

Formal sexual harassment complaints recorded over the past three years (July 2016 to March 2019)

DET

5 151

212

4

DELWP

3 950

154

3

DJPR

2 787

143

Former DEDJTR 2

DJPR 1

DoT

650

Not undertaken (b)

DoT 0

DHHS

11 545

357

Cannot quantify

DJCS

10 177

539

Cannot quantify

DPC

1 099

42

4

DTF

729

18

4

(a) These numbers reflect responses to the 2019 PMS. There could be more staff who experienced sexual harassment that did not take part in the PMS.
(b) DoT did not participate in the PMS survey due to the timing of the machinery of government changes resulting in a large organisational change.
Source: VAGO analysis of departmental records and PMS data 2019.


We discuss complaint management and potential reasons for underreporting in more detail in Part 3.

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