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What is sexual harassment?
There is no single, universally agreed, one-sentence definition of sexual harassment. Broadly, it is the impact of words or behaviour that defines sexual harassment, not the intentions or motives of the person responsible for it. Saying ‘I didn’t mean it’ or ‘it was just a joke’ doesn’t minimise the behaviour or stop it constituting sexual harassment.
In practice, sexual harassment is uninvited and unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that offends, humiliates or intimidates an individual or a group. It can include unwelcome sexual advances, inappropriate comments or questions, explicit material, sexual propositions and requests for sexual favours. Sexual harassment is also not limited by sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sexual harassment can be blatant or discreet. It can involve physical contact and written or verbal innuendo. It can happen in a single incident, or through actions, banter or other conduct in an environment that is sexualised, sexually permeated, or sexually hostile.
Sexual harassment can occur at work or in any other work-related environment, including at professional social functions, offsite training and conferences. It can take place in person, behind a person’s back, over the phone, by email or text messaging, and on social media.
When deciding if something constitutes sexual harassment, the context, nature and impact of the conduct are assessed. The motive and intent of the person behind the words or behaviour are not relevant to this assessment.
Sexual harassment is unlawful across Australia and New Zealand in employment, education and training, and the provision of medical services.
Behaviours that constitute sexual harassment
Examples of sexual harassment can include:
- unwanted physical contact, unnecessary familiarity or attempts at intimacy
- inappropriate staring, leering, whistling, taunts and gestures
- suggestive comments, jokes or innuendo
- stalking or the delivery of unwanted items
- inappropriate propositions, persistent requests for dates or requests for sexual favours
- comments and questions about a person’s appearance, their private life or partner
- obscene communication including sexually explicit text messages, images, video, phone calls, voice messages and emails
- inappropriate gifts and the display of offensive objects or material
- inappropriate screensavers, ringtones, alarms and offensive song lyrics, and
- molestation, indecent exposure, indecent assault, sexual assault or rape.
In the surgical workplace, this can include:
- unacceptable familiarity in the corridor
- a lewd comment about a Trainee as they leave the ward
- an inappropriate note left on the windscreen of a surgeon’s car, or
- unwelcome propositions sent by text message or posted on social media.
What about consent?
Mutual attraction and consensual relationships do not amount to sexual harassment. However, people who work with their partners, or are involved in sexual relationships with colleagues or others known to them through work, need to keep their conduct at work professional at all times.
Unwelcome conduct can amount to sexual harassment. This can include when a consensual relationship has ended and one party attempts to rekindle the relationship at work, via a work colleague, or under the auspice of work.
Sexual harassment in the workplace
Everyone is entitled to a comfortable and safe work environment which includes being treated with dignity and respect.
Current research shows that sexual harassment persists in surgical workplaces across Australia and New Zealand, as it does in other health care settings and the wider community.
RACS data show that 19 percent of Fellows, Trainees and IMGs report workplace harassment and 7 percent report sexual harassment .
Research also shows that sexual harassment remains a problem across Australian workplaces and the community at large. In the last five years:
- one in three (33 percent) of Australians say they have experienced sexual harassment at work
- almost two in five women (39 percent) and just over one in four men (26 per cent) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace
- people aged 18 to 29 are more likely than any other age groups to have experienced workplace sexual harassment (45 per cent) .
- fewer than one in five people (17 percent) made a formal report or complaint in relation to workplace sexual harassment between August 2017 – August 2018 .
There has been a low reporting rate of sexual harassment in surgery. Anecdotal information indicates fears about retaliation, concerns about the impact on careers, and the processes for resolving concerns about sexual harassment have contributed to low reporting rates.
It is unlawful to victimise, threaten or punish a person who makes a complaint about sexual harassment, or acts as a witness to it, or who plans to do this.
 Expert Advisory Group, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons
 Australian Human Rights Commission website, accessed June 2019
 Australian Human Rights Commission, accessed June 2019
When sexual harassment is also a crime
Some behaviours that constitute sexual harassment can amount to criminal offences and should also be reported to the police. It is important to note that some matters can be dealt with in the workplace and by the police. The processes are different, as are the thresholds for determining workplace sexual harassment and criminal offences. They are not interchangeable.
Action within the workplace that ensures an environment is free of sexual harassment should not be put on hold because of pending criminal charges.
Sexual harassment can be addressed when people speak up. We might witness sexual harassment or be asked for help. We may experience sexual harassment personally or be impacted by a sexualised work culture or group dynamic.
When sexual harassment is ignored or unchallenged, it is normalised. As former army chief Lieutenant General David Morrison famously said, the standard we walk past is the standard we accept. As leaders in our teams and workplaces, we all have a responsibility to speak up if we have knowledge of sexual harassment. To fail to speak up is to allow it to continue.
If we know that someone else is experiencing sexual harassment, they are at risk of harm and we have a responsibility to act. This includes approaching them and providing support and information about how to get help and advice.
Witnesses can include:
- an employee in the theatre, corridor, staff room or meeting room who sees a colleague being sexually harassed by a peer, a superior or a patient
- an employee hearing colleagues make inappropriate sexual comments about their peers, including at after work drinks
- a person who is told by a colleague that they are experiencing sexual harassment or
- a manager or senior surgeon who is told that a new work member is being targeted, objectified, or spoken to in an inappropriate sexual manner.
As witnesses we can:
- recognise sexual harassment when it occurs, and act on what we know
- support the person experiencing sexual harassment and help them to take their own action by:
- listening to them and in an empathetic manner
- referring them to workplace policies and procedures and to credible information posted online (Government and external agencies in Australia and New Zealand that deal with sexual harassment are listed below)
- directing them to information about making a complaint
- helping them to work out what they might say to the person responsible for the inappropriate behaviour or comments of concern
- encouraging them to report the problem
- offering to be a ‘support person’ throughout the process and
- connecting them to a source of support, including the RACS Support Program or other Employee Assistance Program.
If appropriate and with permission from the person who was offended, you could also:
- talk to the person responsible for the behaviour, telling them it was unacceptable, unwelcome and that it must stop
- speak to your employer or relevant senior manager
- speak to a member of your human resources team.
It’s personal: When sexual harassment affects you
Experiencing sexual harassment can be difficult, disconcerting and emotional. It can be daunting to raise concerns or to formalise a complaint. But, every employer has a legal duty to ensure the workplace is free of sexual harassment and related victimisation, so calling out the behaviour is important. The bodies listed below are able to provide advice on making a complaint and the protections available for persons who make a complaint following sexual harassment.
If you are personally experiencing sexual harassment or feeling unsafe at work, it can be a good idea to talk with a close colleague, or a senior surgeon you trust. Accessing the RACS Support Program or an alternative Employee Assistance Program to talk over the issues and map strategies for action can also be helpful.
You can also:
- raise the issue directly with the person whose conduct causes you concern, so they know their behaviour is unwelcome and must stop. You can take a colleague with you to do this or ask a senior surgeon you trust talk to the person on your behalf
- make a complaint to your manager or employer
- contact RACS for information or to make a complaint, or
- gather information from credible online sources such as the website of Government and external agencies in Australia and New Zealand that deal with sexual harassment (see the list below). You can also call them for information or to lodge a formal complaint.
Building a culture of respect: What RACS is doing
Legislation prohibiting sexual harassment has been in place for more than three decades. Open discussion about the problem has increased over recent years. The #metoo movement has also gained momentum across our communities and it is no longer tolerated when organisations ‘turn a blind eye’. Across the world and in different sectors, organisations are expected to proactively identify and deal effectively with unacceptable behaviour of a sexual nature. RACS is very proud of the work it has done to lead cultural change in surgery and has earned international respect for our steady work to support a culture of respect.
Education and prevention are key to our efforts to ensure that everyone is treated with respect and can practise in a safe work environment. Our programs aim to continue to raise awareness and inform people about their rights and responsibilities while ensuring support for all individuals to behave professionally.
Professionalism is central to surgical training and practice, and respect is a cornerstone of professionalism. Being respectful and professional are fundamental to preventing workplace sexual harassment.
Since 2015, RACS Building Respect; Improving Patient Safety program has set clear standards and we hold individuals to those standards. We are all required to behave professionally and respectfully.
As a college, we are doing what we can to maximise the impact of our collective effort. RACS is actively working with Fellows, Trainees, hospitals and others to build a culture of respect in surgery.
For information and inquiries:
You may wish to make an inquiry or a complaint to an external agency. Australian Federal, State and Territorial legislation varies, as does New Zealand legislation.
Australian Human Rights Commission
Phone: 1300 656 419
ACT Human Rights Commission: 02 6205 2222
Anti-Discrimination Board NSW: 137 788
Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission: 1800 813 846
Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland: 1300 130 670
Equal Opportunity Commission South Australia: 1800 188 163
Equal Opportunity Tasmania: 1300 305 062
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission: 1300 891 848
Equal Opportunity Commission Western Australia: 1800 198 149
New Zealand Human Rights Commission
Phone: 0800 496 877
Worksafe New Zealand
Phone: 0800 030 040
RACS Support Program
If you are feeling anxious or depressed it is important to speak to someone. The RACS Support Program is available at no charge to all Fellows, Trainees and International Medical Graduates and their families.
RACS Support Program is provided by Converge International:
Australia: 1300 687 327
New Zealand: 0800 666 367