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How Tech And Remote Working Have Fuelled Workplace Sexual Harassment

Survey exposes risks of tech-based harassment in work settings, highlighting the urgency for updated policies and awareness.

Clearer policies and laws are needed to protect workers in the digital age. (Israel Andrade/Unsplash)

By Asher Flynn and Lisa Wheildon, Monash University and Anastasia Powell, RMIT

MELBOURNE, May 3 – One in four Australians admitted to engaging in workplace sexual harassment based on a recent study led by Monash University.

The study funded by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) involved more than 3,000 Australians aged between 18 and 65.

The findings also revealed that one in seven employees engaged in tech-based forms of workplace sexual harassment while one in five admitted to engaging in-person sexual harassment at work.

It’s not just jokes and harmless flirting — the motivations behind this behaviour are often more sinister. 

The research challenges traditional views, showing that harassment is often driven by a desire to control, humiliate, or even frighten the victim. 

Those who admitted to tech-based sexual harassment at work said they did it to “hurt the feelings of” or “annoy” others. This aligns more with bullying than playful behaviour.

 It also suggests that prevention, education and responses to workplace sexual harassment, including tech-based harassment, need to take such problematic understandings and views into account.

Those who admitted engaging in tech-based workplace sexual harassment were also more likely to describe having sexist and gender-discriminatory attitudes, for example, agreeing that “women often flirt with men just to be hurtful”, and to believe in sexual harassment myths, such as “believing women enjoy being hit on at work”.

The study also sheds light on a worrying trend: the rise of tech-based sexual harassment at work. 

With remote work becoming the norm, inappropriate behaviour is finding new avenues. Inappropriate WhatsApp groups, sexually suggestive messages, and blurred lines between personal and professional communication are becoming an increasing threat.

The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated this shift, with nearly two-thirds of those admitting to engaging in tech-based sexual harassment reporting it started after working from home became commonplace (after March 2020). 

Another one in four respondents said the most recent incident “definitely” or “probably” occurred around the time they were working from home.

This suggests there is a need for workplaces to ensure policies relating to sexual harassment cover working-from-home contexts.

This highlights a crucial gap in many workplaces: a lack of clear policies to address harassment in virtual settings.

Remote working conditions such as working from home and working outside regular business hours have impacted how people engage in workplace sexual harassment. 

This can be partially explained by our reliance on technologies to communicate for work in less traditional or formal ways, such as using WhatsApp or Microsoft Teams Chat. 

One example came to light in February 2024, when the media reported allegations of an inappropriate Australian naval officers WhatsApp group which boasted about sexual conquests and included sexually explicit jokes and comments about female navy members.

The changing nature of the workplace also means colleagues are now interacting more often through technology, as opposed to in person, which can blur the boundaries of work and professionalism.

What might be considered unprofessional or inappropriate conduct in a physical office setting may not immediately be seen in the same way in digital communication, such as a text message.

In many ways, employers and governments have been slow to respond to the changing working culture and environment after the pandemic, and policies and supports have not kept pace with changes to how, where and when people work, as well as shifts in the ways that people use and communicate with colleagues (and clients) across digital technologies. 

The omnipresence of someone accessing you at any time outside the confines of work was described by one study participant as — “bombarding into someone’s private space”.

Recent changes to Australian law now place a legal obligation on employers to proactively eliminate sexual harassment, and the Australian Human Rights Commission has new powers to investigate and enforce compliance. 

What is less clear is how these laws define and regulate what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, including when it is perpetrated with technology or when it is perpetrated outside traditional or official workplace communications, for example, in social media apps messages. 

Greater awareness and clarity of how workplace tech-based sexual harassment is defined is a crucial starting point.

Article courtesy of 360info.  

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