Protecting Young Women from Workplace Sexual Harassment

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The National Inquiry into Workplace Sexual Harassment has provided a much-needed opportunity to discuss the prevalence and impacts of sexual harassment in the workplace. The Equality Rights Alliance (ERA) and Harmony Alliance: Migrant and Refugee Women for Change Young Women’s Advisory Groups (YWAGs) contributed to this national conversation through a joint submission. In today’s analysis, Lavanya Kala (@lav_k) of Harmony YWAG and Hannah Gissane (@HannahGissane) of ERA explain why it’s critical to centre the experiences of young women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds when formulating effective responses to workplace sexual harassment.

 In examining workplace sexual harassment, it is important to acknowledge the industrial, cultural and structural drivers and identify targeted solutions, especially for at-risk cohorts like young women and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. But why focus on this group of women?

The rates are higher. Young people aged 18-29 are most likely to experience technology-based harassment, with 39% reporting experiences of sexual harassment online or via some form of technology. According to the Women and the Future of Work report, women born in Asia, and culturally and linguistically diverse women more generally, report experiencing sexual harassment at twice the rate of the surveyed population.

The impacts can be greater. The level of intimidation felt about workplace sexual harassment is greater among younger workers. Younger women are more likely to have a work-related mental condition safe work claim resulting from sexual or racial harassment and are more likely to suffer negative health outcomes as a result of workplace harassment.

Understanding is lowest amongst this group. Awareness of what constitutes sexual harassment is lowest among people aged 15-17 and for people who speak a language other than English at home.

What we don’t know is also troubling. While the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 Survey indicates young people are more likely to have sought advice or support, there is little data collected on the prevalence of sexual harassment within culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia, and even less on young migrant women.

Despite this, research by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) indicates that women from migrant or refugee backgrounds may be at higher risk of experiencing sexual assault and can experience a number of barriers to reporting. It is critically important to understand cultural attitudes and diverse social views on sexual harassment and violence.

Women from these backgrounds associate sexual harassment and violence with shame and can be stigmatised by family or community. Other barriers to reporting include the failure to recognise what encompasses sexual harassment, cultural barriers, fear about residency status, language barriers and being in insecure or precarious work.

The heightened vulnerability to sexual harassment for young women is produced by a collision of systemic industrial power imbalances and broader structural social and cultural inequalities.

In Australia, young women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds bear the brunt of sexual harassment experiences in the workplace, while being poorly placed to utilise formal redress channels.  Photo of the Young Women’s Advisory Group courtesy ERA.

In Australia, young women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds bear the brunt of sexual harassment experiences in the workplace, while being poorly placed to utilise formal redress channels. Photo of the Young Women’s Advisory Group courtesy ERA.

Gender-based occupational segregation and casualisation are the two key industrial predictors for sexual harassment. Research consistently points to higher rates of sexual harassment in industries and sectors that are male-dominated, with Australia having one of the most gender segregated workforces in the world. The Australian Senate recently examined this issue and produced a suite of policy recommendations to address the problem. Ensuring accountability for these recommendations must form part of the broader response to sexual harassment.

Casualisation of the workforce and insecure work disproportionately impacts women, migrant workers, young workers, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander workers and people with disability. Those who are self-employed, contractors or casually employed are more likely to experience sexual harassment than permanent workers. While targeted measures must be employed for temporary and casual workers, wholesale action to address insecure work would contribute to an industrial environment with fewer opportunities to exploit power imbalances.

Prevailing gender, age and race-based inequalities drive the unequal positions that many young women hold in workplaces. Actions to address workplace sexual harassment need to be a part of broader action that address gender and race-based inequalities.

There are a number of solutions that should be considered that require social, cultural, industrial and legal change.


  • The Government should continue to support the development of a binding International Labour Organisation Convention to address workplace sexual harassment.

  • The Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) Reporting Framework should be reviewed to also include an assessment of the efficacy of an employer’s approach to sexual harassment. Further, WGEA’s data collection and reporting systems should be expanded to include claims and statistics on sexual harassment, including disaggregation on youth, ethnicity and other characteristics.

  • There is enormous benefit to the community if specialist services are resourced appropriately. Working Women’s Centres (WWC) have a long history of supporting women with employment and workplace issues and informing vulnerable workers of their rights.

  • Employers should have a positive obligation to protect young employees from sexual harassment, through navigable policies and procedures to support victims, innovative systems to ease and incentivise reporting for complainants and bystanders, and cross-cultural information and service provision.

  • Current complaints procedures are onerous and confusing and more so if English is not your first language, if you are a new arrival or if you are young and unaccustomed with the process. A national service should be established to support all people experiencing workplace sexual harassment to facilitate their complaints, with a focus on supporting vulnerable groups, and could be captured through 1800RESPECT. This should also be supported by targeted educational material informing vulnerable groups of their rights.

  • Australia’s e-Safety Commissioner is key to protecting and preventing the growing abuse of women in digital contexts. Research conducted by the e-Safety Office indicates women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds face significant barriers to seeking support with technology-facilitated abuse, stalking or threats. Many women are unaware technology-facilitated abuse is a crime, and with low digital literacy levels, “shaming and traditional gender roles often preventing women from seeking support”.

With sexual harassment linked to other forms of gender-based violence, it is critically important that proactive steps are taken to respond to this harmful behaviour. The Harmony Alliance and Equality Rights Alliance YWAGs eagerly anticipate the findings of the National Inquiry with the view that young women in all their diversity must be considered in any reforms. With proper resourcing and support there are practical, targeted and evidence-based protective and remedial measures that can be put in place to prevent and respond to workplace sexual harassment that protect all young women in the workplace.

 This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.