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Would You Report Sexual Harassment At Work?

Putting up with a sexist joke at work rather than ‘make a fuss’ is more common than you might think.

It’s not unusual for Australians experiencing sexual harassment to deflect, ignore or go along with the behaviour, experts say.

In fact, it’s pretty much the norm.

While most of us are pretty clear on what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour, uneven power dynamics that so often factor into sexual harassment mean it can be difficult to speak up.

Australian actress Yael Stone reignited the conversation on ABC's 7.30 this week.

"Consent is very complicated, and almost impossible in a dynamic where the power is so drastically imbalanced," Stone told 7.30's Leigh Sales.

"I would say in any working environment, where there is that imbalance of power, the subordinate doesn't have a great opportunity for expressing themselves freely.

"So the onus is on the more powerful person not to put the subordinate in that position."

Yael Stone appeared on the ABC's 7.30 last night. Image: ABC

However, power imbalance is a frequent element of sexual harassment cases. In fact, one of the key drivers is an abuse of power, according to federal sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins.

"It's not always a senior person and a junior person, but invariably it's someone who is in a position of power," she told 10 daily.

""It could be a boss or a manager, a more influential colleague, a customer or a client, or who simply someone who has a degree of power and control, which means it can be very difficult for people to object and complain, because there are other things at stake if they do.”

One in four Australian women and around 13 percent of men have been sexually harassed in the last five years, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission's latest national survey on workplace harassment.

Sexually suggestive jokes are the most common form of sexual harassment experienced by Australians, according to the 2018 National Survey into workplace sexual harassment. Source: AHRC.

Jenkins said it's common for people to laugh off or ignore sexual harassment, particularly when they're at risk of losing income.

"People don't want to make formal complaints," she said.

"Lots of people say, 'I don't try to encourage [the harassment], but it's too risky for me to say no'."

In the survey, women in male-dominated industries in particular spoke of enduring inappropriate jokes as a matter of workplace survival -- until they crack.

"It's called the continuum of compromise," Jenkins said.

"You laugh along because it's every day, but then at some point, you think it's gone too far.

"One woman told me that after a while, it became so normal, she couldn't remember what was really out of line."

Kate Jenkins said women in mining in particular spoke of putting up with sexually inappropriate jokes in order to keep the peace. Photo: Getty.

A key driver of harassment includes a sense of entitlement from people in positions of power, said Karen Willis of the Full Stop Foundation, even when that goes against the needs of others.

"Perhaps because of their position of power, they have been getting away with these behaviours for a long time," she told 10 daily.

To make matters even more confusing, sexual harassment doesn't always look the way movies and television would have us believe.

"The idea that there's a man who behaves in almost monstrous ways, in very blatant and aggressive ways, who targets young women who have almost no power in relation to him, that's just one example of sexual harassment," Dr Karen O'Connell, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Technology Sydney, told 10 daily.

"Very often people are drawn into a sexualised culture or sexualised interactions at work in a way that's not so black and white. And their first thought isn't, 'I'll take a case to court'. It's 'How can I deflect?'."

The most obvious answer is for people to understand how their power affects others' ability to push back.

Failing that, it's up to others in positions of power to become the 'ethical bystander'.

"What we know about men who operate from a sense of entitlement, is that often women telling them to bugger off really doesn't have much of an impact," Willis said.

"[On the other hand], men who behave like this are very much impacted by their peer relations, other men saying to them, 'this is not the way we do things around here'."

"Every time someone sees something and doesn't say anything, or walks past it, basically what they're doing is condoning it."

If you have experienced sexual harassment at work and would like to contribute to the AHRC's National Workplace Sexual Harassment Inquiry, submissions are now open here.

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au