Silent Epidemic
Vol. 19 No 4 | Summer 2017
Sexual harassment in the workplace
Gary Pinchen
Principal, A Whole New Approach Pty Ltd
Alyssandria Lim
Commerce/law, 2nd year student

This article is 7 years old and may no longer reflect current clinical practice.

Sexual harassment continues to be a prevalent issue that is experienced all too frequently in the workplace, especially by women. A poll conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2003 revealed that 28 per cent of women, along with 7 per cent of men, experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.1 It is therefore critical that employers, along with employees, take proactive action to prevent harassment in the workplace.

What exactly is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is conventionally known as any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour that makes someone feel offended or humiliated. While this definition appears comprehensive, sexual harassment can come in a variety of forms and consequently goes unrecognised. Unsolicited kissing and caressing would undoubtedly be categorised as harassment. However, can a hand around the waist or a hand around the shoulder fall under the category of sexual harassment? Yes. The test is that such actions must be unsolicited.

Who sexually harasses?

While it is the case that sexual harassment occurs among employees, the perpetrators of harassment are often those at higher levels. These individuals are small business owners, dentists, bar managers, surgeons – all situations where the distinction between a person in authority and their employee is clearly delineated. In such circumstances, it is also clearer to these victims the precarious situation their employment is in, such as if they do so much as to protest when a hand is placed on their thigh.

Sexual harassment in the medical field

In a field that continues to be increasingly competitive, and relentlessly demanding, it is not uncommon for sexual harassment to occur. The profession is one in which long, tireless hours are the norm, and yet complaints are not as commonplace.

There is a culture that this profession has allegedly cultivated – that if you make any complaints, you are effectively staining your career. Take Dr Caroline Tan, who excelled in medical school and was mentored by a surgeon. What began as requests to stay back for additional tutelage escalated to sexual assault, prompting Dr Tan to make a complaint of sexual harassment with a tribunal. While she did effectively win this case, her medical career was ruined; Dr Tan’s applications to hospitals were cast aside due to a lack of ability, despite her outstanding references and results. The perpetrator on the other hand, Mr Xenos, was given a formal warning.2 Dr Tan’s case is an example of the appalling culture in the field, and the need to fight back, whether it is by ensuring all staff undergo the appropriate training or to simply raise awareness.

Why does it continue to go unreported?

If sexual harassment and inequality is such a prominent issue, why does it continue to be unreported? Unfortunately, the stark reality that burdens many of these victims is that financial security and job stability takes precedence over their wellbeing and safety. Particularly in the medical profession, which is already competitive as it is, the fear of jeopardising a long, hard-earned career is terrifying. This is often the case for many single parents – while they are troubled by the stress and anguish of having to tolerate this unjust treatment, the burden of an exponentially growing debt, or the knowledge that their family needs food on the table, is more important.

Failure of employers

All too often, employers fail in properly fulfilling their responsibility to take the appropriate action to prevent discrimination, harassment and inequality in the workplace. When complaints are brought to the attention of employers, it is their duty to conduct a thorough investigation and to ensure that measures are put in place to prevent further harassment and vilification.

However, if no complaints are raised, it does not mean that the employers can turn a blind eye to harassment or inequality that is occurring in their workplace. It is obviously the duty of the employer to ensure their staff undergo the appropriate training and are aware of the strict policies and procedures that are in place. It is also the duty of employers to recognise that certain forms of banter are inappropriate, and any incidents of uninvited touching should be addressed.

Issues at home, impact on work

The issues that occur behind closed doors at home can often manifest in the workplace. Domestic violence does not only create issues at home, but also in the workplace. Women who must battle abuse at home often must do so while at work, whether it is at the hands of their employers, or fellow colleagues. Additionally, having to deal with a host of issues at home may cause fatigue and impede work performance, which in turn may instigate impatience and frustration from unsympathetic employers. It does not assist the situation when employers continually reinforce the notion that issues at home are meant to be left at home. It is important to maintain professionalism at work, but if an employee requires time off to see a therapist, or take stress leave, the employer should accommodate this. A failure to understand perpetuates the cycle of inequality against victims of domestic violence.


What to do if you feel like you’re being sexually harassed or being treated unfairly

It is important to raise your concerns with your employer as soon as you have experienced sexual harassment or unfair treatment. If your company has a human resources department, address your complaints to them. It is then the duty of human resources to investigate these complaints in a prompt manner, while maintaining confidentiality. Alternatively, you may seek to consult a manager, or someone who can direct your complaints and have the matter properly addressed. If your company fails to appropriately address your concerns, or if they fail to enforce any preventative measures to ensure the harassment or discrimination does not continue, you may reach out to the Human Rights Commission


  1. Results of the 2008 Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey. Australian Human Rights Commission; 2008 [cited 2017 Sept 17]. Available from:
  2. Medew J. Surgeon Caroline Tan breaks silence over sexual harassment in hospitals. The Age, 2015. [cited 23 September 2017]. Available from:

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