Work-related gendered violence including sexual harassment
Information for employers about preventing and responding to work-related gendered violence, including work-related sexual harassment.
What is work-related gendered violence
Work-related gendered violence is any behaviour, directed at any person, or that affects a person, because of their sex, gender or sexual orientation, or because they do not adhere to socially prescribed gender roles, that creates a risk to health and safety.
This includes violence targeted directly at someone specifically because, for example:
they are a woman
they identify as LGBTIQA+
they don't follow socially prescribed gender roles and stereotypes
Work-related gendered violence can also be experienced indirectly. A person may experience gendered violence not targeted specifically at them (such as overhearing a conversation that affects them) or witness violence directed at someone else.
LGBTIQA+: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual and other sexually or gender diverse people.
Socially prescribed gender roles: Society's traditional ideas about how men and women should look or act, what characteristics they should have, or their roles in the workplace, home or public life.
Types of work-related gendered violence can range in severity from comments and gestures, through to sexual assault and rape. It can include:
stalking, intimidation or threats
ostracism or exclusion
sexually explicit gestures
offensive language and imagery
put downs, innuendo, and insinuations
being undermined in your role or position
sexual assault or rape
What is sexual harassment
As outlined in Section 92(1) of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (EO Act), a person sexually harasses another person if he or she:
makes an unwelcome sexual advance, or an unwelcome request for sexual favours, to the other person, or
engages in any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the other person
in circumstances in which a reasonable person, having regard to all the circumstances, would have anticipated that the other person would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.
Work-related sexual harassment
Work-related sexual harassment is sexual harassment (as described above) directed at a person, that can happen at work, work related events, or between people sharing the same workplace. Work-related sexual harassment isn’t always obvious, repeated or continuous.
It can be a one-off incident and can involve unwanted or unwelcome:
staring or leering
suggestive comments or jokes
sexually explicit pictures or posters
repeated invitations to go out on dates
requests for sex
intrusive questions about a person's private life or body
unnecessary contact, such as deliberately brushing up against a person
insults or taunts based on sex or gender
sexually explicit physical contact
sexually explicit emails, text messages or social media activity
Work-related gendered violence and the law
Employers, employees and others have specific duties relating to work-related gendered violence (including work-related sexual harassment) under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 and the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
Acts such as indecent exposure, stalking, sexual assault and obscene or threatening communications (for example phone calls, letters, emails, text messages and posts on social networking sites) may also be offences under criminal law. Victims may want to report criminal offences to the police.
Occupational Health and Safety Act duties
Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (OHS Act), employers must provide and maintain a work environment that is safe and without risk to the health of their employees, so far as is reasonably practicable. Employees include independent contractors and any employees of the independent contractor.
Employers must eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable. If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risks they must be reduced so far as is reasonably practicable. This duty includes eliminating and reducing risks to health and safety arising from the actions of people who are not employees.
Employers must provide and maintain safe systems of work, and give employees the necessary information, instruction, training or supervision to do their job safely and without risks to health.
Employers must consult with health and safety representatives (HSRs) and their employees about health and safety issues that may directly affect them. Consultation about gendered violence must occur when:
identifying or assessing hazards or risks in the workplace
making decisions about measures to be taken to prevent and manage gendered violence risks
making decisions about procedures to resolve health or safety issues
making decisions about procedures to monitor employee health
making decisions about information and training on work-related gendered violence
proposing changes that may affect the health and safety of employees
Employers must also ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that people other than employees are not exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from the conduct of the undertaking of the employer.
Sexual harassment is a common and known cause of physical and mental injury
Where there is a risk of work-related sexual harassment causing physical or mental injury employers have an obligation under the OHS Act to control that risk. This obligation is in addition to the obligation of employers under the EO Act.
Self-employed persons must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that people are not exposed to risks to their health and safety arising from their conduct.
Persons with management and control of a workplace
Persons with management and control of a workplace must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the workplace is safe and without risks to health. Those with management and control are not always employers or employees. These people also have a duty to ensure that the workplace is safe and without risks to health, including from gendered violence and sexual harassment, for matters over which they have management or control.
For example this may include persons appointed to a position, such as judicial officers or tribunal members who work with associates and other court staff in chambers and have a level of management and control over that workplace and those court staff. Another example may be board members of an organisation or mayors/councillors working with council staff.
The conduct of judicial officers and VCAT members is regulated by the Judicial Commission of Victoria (JCV), which has professional standards functions including setting standards of conduct. For more information about the guidelines for judicial conduct in Victoria, or to lodge a complaint about a judicial officer or VCAT member, visit the JCV’s website.
Employees must take reasonable care of their own health and safety in the workplace, and the health and safety of others who may be affected by what they do or don’t do. Employees must also cooperate with their employer on any action taken to comply with the OHS Act.
Equal Opportunity Act duties
Work-related gendered violence may constitute sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination or victimisation (treating someone adversely because they have made, or may make, a complaint) under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (EO Act).
Under the EO Act, employers have a duty not to engage in discrimination or sexual harassment, and to take reasonable steps to eliminate these behaviours.
An individual who discriminates against or sexually harasses another person in the workplace can be held responsible, and therefore legally liable, for their behaviour.
Employers can also be held legally responsible for acts of discrimination or sexual harassment by their employees or agents if they occur:
in the workplace, or
in connection with a person's employment
This is known as vicarious liability.
Dealing with discrimination or sexual harassment
Risks and effects of work-related gendered violence
People can be exposed to work-related gendered violence from managers, coworkers, contractors, site visitors, clients, customers or members of the public. Gendered violence can be perpetrated by anyone regardless of their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. The evidence shows that men are more likely to commit gendered violence.
Work-related gendered violence may be aimed directly at an individual or a group. It could also be behaviour that while not directed at anyone, affects someone who is exposed to it, or witnesses it.
Examples of work-related gendered violence could include
A caller uses offensive sexual language with a female call centre operator.
An employer questions or makes negative comments about an employee’s sexual orientation or the way they look.
Pornographic posters on the wall in a warehouse make the female driver feel uncomfortable whenever she has to pick up a delivery.
People make disparaging jokes about gay relationships in the staffroom, making a gay colleague at a neighbouring table feel threatened and excluded.
A pub owner tells the female employees they have to wear short skirts to look sexy for the patrons.
An employee receives unwanted sexually explicit texts from another employee after hours.
A transgender woman overhears coworkers complaining about her using the women's toilets.
A person is sexually assaulted by a client in a health care facility.
In some situations, work-related gendered violence and sexual harassment may overlap with work-related violence or work-related bullying. Complex workplace situations may include behaviours that are difficult to distinguish. The employer should consistently address work-related factors to help prevent and address these behaviours.
How it affects people
Work-related gendered violence varies in severity and its effect. It can contribute to physical injury and illness, as well as mental injury. It can lead to:
feelings of isolation
loss of confidence and withdrawal
physical injuries as a result of assault
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
social isolation, family dislocation
financial loss or economic disadvantage
cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, immune deficiency and gastrointestinal disorders (for example, as a result of stress)
Who is most at risk
While anyone can experience work-related gendered violence, certain conditions make some groups of people more likely to experience it.
In a Victorian survey, over 60% of women reported that they had experienced some form of gendered violence at work and have felt at risk in their workplaces (VTHC).
An Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) survey on sexual harassment found that women are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment in the workplace, and more likely to experience sexual harassment that causes 'extreme offence' or 'extreme intimidation'.
It also found that in the 5 years before 2018:
People who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or with another sexual orientation (including pansexual, queer, asexual, aromantic, undecided, not sure, questioning) were significantly more likely than those who identify as straight or heterosexual to be sexually harassed in the workplace.
Almost two-thirds of victims of sexual harassment were under 40 years of age.
In the five years until 2018, work-related sexual harassment was experienced at substantially higher rates among people who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (53%) compared with those who did not (32%).
People with disability were more likely than those without disability to have been sexually harassed in their workplace (44% and 32% respectively).
The risk of experiencing harm from gendered violence rises when a person faces multiple forms of discrimination. Attributes such as gender, sexuality, migration status, disability and literacy can combine (intersect) and increase a person's vulnerability. In addition, employees in insecure work (for example casual, labour hire or part-time work) tend to be exposed more to violence and sexual harassment, especially when combined with the above attributes that can often be discriminated against. All of these can also make employees less likely to report.
The AHRC survey found sexual harassment to be more prevalent in industries including information, media and telecommunications; arts and recreation services; electricity, gas, water and waste services; and retail trade. However, violence can occur in any industry or occupation, and it may be less likely to be reported in some industries where it is seen as a normal part of the job.
Work-related factors that can contribute to the risk
Factors that can contribute to work-related gendered violence include workplaces where:
power is distributed unequally along gendered lines (for example, workplaces where men control positions of power, and/or women are in vulnerable positions in the labour market)
there is a culture of sexism, homophobia and norms that support gendered violence
violent and aggressive behaviour is supported, accepted and rewarded
The risk of gendered violence can also be affected by the type of work being done, work systems, and the physical environment of the workplace.
implementing measures to eliminate or control the risks
reviewing the effectiveness of control measures to ensure they are working, and improving them where needed
Identifying hazards and assessing risks
To identify the potential for gendered violence, you need to gather information on and understand what hazards exist in your workplace, and assess the associated risk.
When gathering information, consult with employees, HSRs and health and safety committees if you have them, and with customers and clients. Ways to gather information to identify areas of concern include:
staff satisfaction surveys
staff exit interviews and surveys
monitoring information like hazard and incident reports, and WorkCover claims
reviewing patterns of absenteeism and sick leave
Don't rely only on formal reports of gendered violence incidents. A lack of reports doesn’t mean that incidents are not happening. It may simply mean that people are not reporting incidents because they don’t know how or feel safe and supported to do so. You can also look out for more subtle signs and symptoms of problems. For example, is an employee performing differently, suddenly taking more sick leave, isolating themselves, or not attending work functions? Is there an awkwardness or lack of communication between employees?
To determine the likelihood that someone will be harmed by work-related gendered violence, ask:
How often are particular tasks done? Does this make harm more or less likely to occur?
Has gendered violence happened before, either in this workplace or somewhere else? If it has happened, how often does it happen?
What are the potential consequences? Will it cause mental or physical injury, or death?
Employers must consult with employees and HSRs about health and safety matters that could directly affect them. Drawing on the experience, knowledge and ideas of employees is more likely to result in the identification of all hazards and the selection and implementation of effective risk control measures.
Consultation needs to involve:
sharing information about anything that could affect workplace health and safety – information should be timely and in a form that can be understood by all employees, including in other languages where appropriate
giving all employees a reasonable opportunity to express their views
Scan your workplace culture and assess your workplace against the statements below. Are they all true for your workplace? Any that aren't may indicate risk factors to be addressed
The workplace is gender equitable (for example women and men are fairly evenly distributed across jobs and levels in your organisation; there an even turnover of female staff compared to male staff).
Social activities are inclusive.
Banter and inappropriate comments are uncommon when staff gather, and if it occurs, people speak up.
Everyone is encouraged and confident to actively participate in meetings and forums.
There are no offensive materials or posters in the workplace.
There are no requirements about employee appearance that might make people feel disrespected and vulnerable (such as uniforms or expectations about wearing makeup).
There are no areas in your workplace that are isolated or intimidating to enter.
People who have recently started in the workplace are appropriately supported.
All employees have access to appropriate facilities, equipment and uniform based on their needs.
There is a clear process for an employee to report unwanted behaviour, whether from a manager or a co-worker, confidentially and without fear of reprisals. Reports are processed and appropriate action is taken.
Perpetrators are responded to appropriately.
Employees are not penalised for reporting inappropriate behaviours – for example by being moved to a different team or restricted in their role and responsibilities.
Eliminating or controlling the risks
Duty holders must eliminate the risk of gendered violence, so far as is reasonably practicable, by removing the hazards associated with those risks.
A very effective way to eliminate the risk of gendered violence is to establish and maintain safe and inclusive workplace cultures and systems, where disrespect and incivility isn't tolerated. It may also be possible to adjust work systems and the environment to entirely eliminate exposure to some gendered violence risks (such as contacting clients by phone, rather than in person, where possible to eliminate the risk of physical violence).
If it is not reasonably practicable to eliminate the risk, then the risk needs to be minimised by implementing a range of control measures. You may need to implement certain measures across the whole organisation, as well as in specific work areas.
Workplace culture can include things like leadership, values, behaviours, language, attitudes and interactions.
Workplaces that tolerate or reward exclusion and disrespectful behaviours are more likely to fail to meet the requirements of the OHS Act to provide a workplace that is safe and free from risks to health.
Achieving gender equality in the workplace takes:
commitment of leaders and staff to equality and respect
workplace conditions (policies and procedures) that support equality and respect
a culture free from sexist and discriminatory attitudes and behaviours
a workplace that supports staff and stakeholders who experience violence
the integration of gender equality into core business
Small acts of disrespect and inequality can lead to more serious acts of gendered violence. Workplace conversations, actions and policies can reinforce or challenge the existing culture.
As the employer or person who manages or controls a workplace, your OHS responsibilities require you to set standards that provide a safe workplace for all employees. Workplace standards should include clear expectations about behaviours, attitudes and language that disrespect or exclude people based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or assumptions about dominant gender stereotypes and socially prescribed gender roles. They need to specify examples of types of behaviours that are and are not allowed.
Standards should be set out in policies and procedures, included in induction and workplace training, and modelled by managers and supervisors. This way everyone in the workplace clearly understands what is acceptable and can be proactive in avoiding, and even challenging, unacceptable behaviours.
Visit the Our Watch website for standards, strategies and tools to help develop a culture of workplace equality and respect.
A workplace behaviour policy and procedure helps to set expectations about behaviours associated with gendered violence. You may have separate policies about gendered violence, workplace bullying, sexual harassment and occupational violence, or you may decide to cover several issues in the one policy. If you include several issues in the one policy, you need to ensure that it adequately addresses the risks and behaviours that specifically relate to gendered violence.
The policy should:
describe discriminatory, aggressive or disrespectful behaviours that are unacceptable
state appropriate action that will be taken to protect employees
include support and referral information for those who have experienced work-related gendered violence and may want additional support
It may also outline things like appropriate language to use and appropriate material to bring into the work environment (for example, that sexist or homophobic language or pornographic material is banned.)
Managers and supervisors should be trained in upholding and applying the policy and related procedures, and understand the importance of modelling appropriate behaviours in line with the policy.
Case study - Fatima's story
Fatima works on a construction site. Fatima identifies as a lesbian and is open at work about her relationship with her female partner. Fatima's supervisor has repeatedly made comments about her sexuality, including asking Fatima how she and her partner have sex. Fatima finds these questions intrusive and unwelcome. The supervisor has also made racist comments. She feels intimidated and is afraid to speak up about the comments in case she loses shifts at work.
After thinking about it for a while, Fatima decides to talk to her manager about the supervisor’s behaviour. The manager listens to her concerns. The manager speaks with the supervisor, reminding them of the company’s harassment and discrimination policy and making it clear that Fatima must not be penalised for raising the issue. The manager also decides to conduct some refresher training on respectful behaviour at the next toolbox talk.
Early intervention and reporting of unwanted or offensive behaviour is often an effective way to make sexual harassment and other forms of gendered violence stop. It is important to have clear and confidential mechanisms for reporting inappropriate behaviour that are widely communicated. During induction and throughout their employment, employees should be encouraged to report behaviour that offends them or causes concern.
There should be a clear response to reports of such behaviour, which does not disadvantage, further harm or place blame on the reporter. There should be an emphasis on changing the behaviour of the perpetrator.
Gendered violence is likely to be under-reported, particularly in occupations where incidents occur regularly. Employees may not report incidents because:
it's seen as just 'part of the job' or the work culture and nothing can be done about it
they think reports will be ignored or not handled respectfully and confidentially
they fear they will be blamed for the incident, or that reporting may expose them to additional harm, discrimination or disadvantage (such as losing their job or shifts)
a perpetrator may have organisational power over them (such as a boss or supervisor)
Reporting can be encouraged by:
acting on reports as soon as possible
consistent, effective and, where possible confidential, response to reports
line supervisors acting appropriately when a report is made to ensure the person making the report is not blamed or penalised for the incident, or subjected to further harm.
Case study - Simon's story
Simon is a team supervisor. One of Simon's team members, Joe, is a transgender man. Before his transition, Joe approached Simon and explained that he would be making some important changes and wanted to be assured that the workplace would be inclusive and safe. Simon supported Joe in talking with his coworkers about what pronouns he preferred.
A few months later, Simon notices that two team members still repeatedly refer to Joe by his old name and as 'her' instead of using his preferred name and pronouns. They even do this in front of clients. Simon pulls these team members aside and states clearly that disrespect to Joe will not be tolerated.
Those who witness gendered violence are often the best placed to intervene when it occurs. Witnesses taking action is an effective strategy that provides the earliest possible intervention.
Encourage bystanders to intervene but only when they feel safe to do so. Employees should receive training in when and how to intervene, such as by verbally discouraging unwanted behaviours. Bystander training consists of building skills, including practising brief responses and anonymously reporting the behaviour to the employer if it does not cease. Employers should advise bystanders they will receive support.
To create an environment where people feel confident to report gendered violence, you should be able to demonstrate that such information will be private and confidential. Employees may choose to only disclose instances of gendered violence in confidence. In these circumstances, you should ensure that all information disclosed is confidential, unless there is a specific risk to the affected employee or other employees. Confidentiality should be used to protect victims, but not to hide or minimise problems.
The physical environment can affect the likelihood of gendered violent incidents, and the ability to respond to those incidents. The following are examples of workplace features that can help prevent incidents:
Facilities and equipment give privacy and security for all staff – such as all-gender toilets with separate cubicles, or private change rooms or accommodation.
The building is secure, maintained, adequately lit and fit for purpose.
Where possible, employees are separated from the public.
Where possible, employees don't work alone.
There is no public access to the premises when people work alone or at night.
Employees can see who is coming into the premises and restrict access when necessary.
Staff car parks are adequately lit.
Communication and alarm systems are in place, regularly maintained and tested.
For more information about choosing physical environment controls to prevent violence (including gendered violence), see Preventing and responding to work-related violence: A guide for employers.
Case study - Sandy's story
Sandy is a young supermarket employee. The policy at her work is that employees have to park at the far end of the carpark because the close parks are for customers. Evening shifts finish at midnight and she usually walks to her car alone. She has been harassed a few times and is frightened about walking alone in the car park at night.
The supermarket's work systems mean that Sandy and her coworkers can be made more vulnerable. A few changes to workplace practices can improve this. For instance, ensuring that the car park is well lit, and that staff walk to their cars at night in pairs, or move their cars close to the workplace at a certain time, can reduce or eliminate some of these risks and incidents of gendered violence.
Use training to support your overall strategy for preventing work-related gendered violence. Training on gendered violence can be included as part of wider training about workplace behaviours, codes of conduct and violence prevention. Appropriately targeted training should be delivered to employees at all levels of an organisation.
Induction and training for employees can be provided in the following areas:
gendered violence prevention measures
workplace policy and procedures, including acceptable standards of behaviour, how to respond to and report gendered violence, and encouragement of reporting all incidents
bystander intervention – what employees should do if they witness gendered violence
what to do if someone discloses an instance of gendered violence
situational risk assessment – for example when visiting homes or working off site
strategies for modelling and encouraging positive behaviours and for managing behaviours of concern
dealing with challenging customers or clients
understanding gender, sexuality, gender-identity, disability or minority-based vulnerability
Reviewing risk control measures
Reviews help employers to check whether risk control measures are working. They may also identify possible improvements to their effectiveness through changes to the physical environment, new work procedures, and/or additional training.
A review of risk control measures can include an examination of the physical environment, work functions and tasks.
A review of risk control measures should occur:
at a regular time – for example annually
when employee or HSR feedback indicates risk control measures are ineffective or not as effective as they should be
when an HSR or health and safety committee request a review
when there have been significant changes in the work environment or work tasks
after an incident or near miss
when state of knowledge changes
Responding to work-related gendered violence
Responses to work-related gendered violence will vary depending on the nature and severity of the incident but employers should respond quickly and appropriately.
Systems should be in place that guide what to do at the time of, and immediately after, an incident.
Physical assault, sexual assault and threats to harm someone should be referred to the police. If a matter has been referred to police, the incident should still be investigated, to assess whether risk-controls are effective and the response procedures worked the way they were supposed to.
Responding to incidents
A response system should address:
immediate safety issues
notifications required by external agencies such as police, fire, ambulance and WorkSafe
engagement of support services and referrals
Incident response policies and procedures should be supported by training to ensure that employees are familiar with them.
Managers and supervisors should be trained in handling disclosures of gendered violence incidents in ways that ensure the complainant does not experience further harm from making the complaint.
Referral to other agencies
A complainant may wish to contact other agencies about their complaint. When dealing with the incident and discussing referral, it's very important to respect the complainant's desired outcome and preferred way of managing the complaint.
If the complainant wishes, it may be appropriate for them to contact:
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission on complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination
Victoria Police on matters that may be criminal offences