Institutional Action on Sexual Harassment

Drawing of an Asian woman standing by the side of a glass building. Her face is obscured

Trigger warning: this post discusses tactics used by sexual harassers to evade justice and the impact on survivors.

Today is International Women’s Day. I don’t much feel like ‘celebrating’ on this occassion. I feel burned out by the lack of racial justice and exclusion in the promotion of this day in Australia. Plus I am spending much of my spare time working through research and writing on my experiences working in equity and diversity. In particular, the myriad of ways in which women of colour are doubly or even trebly disadvantaged when they seek help on sexual harassment, racial discrimination and other inequity. So today’s post is not about ‘celebrating’ women and femmes. Instead, it is closer to the original impetus of the day. International Women’s Day is a day of protest that began with women’s workplace rights (United Nations Women Australia 2019). Join me in witnessing how far we still have to go to have our stories heard with dignity, and the lack of accountability by institutions to uphold our safety at work.

One in five women experience sexual harassment at work. In academia, from 2010-2016, 575 cases of sexual assault were reported in Australian universities, but these led to only six expulsions (see Zevallos 2019). Women students are three times as likely to be assaulted and twice as likely to be harassed as men. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as disabled people experience a disproportionate level of sexual harassment and sexual assault, as do lesbian, gay, bisexual people, and especially transgender students, who experience up to twice the rate of harassment as heterosexual students.

What is sexual harassment? It is not subjective. Workplace law says it includes “any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.” For example:

  • unwelcome touching;
  • staring or leering;
  • suggestive comments or jokes;
  • sexually explicit pictures or posters;
  • unwanted invitations to go out on dates;
  • requests for sex;
  • intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body;
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person;
  • insults or taunts based on sex;
  • sexually explicit physical contact; and
  • sexually explicit emails or SMS text messages.

Perpetrators of sexual harassment use five tactics to deflect blame (“outrage tactics”):

  1. Cover up;
  2. Devaluing victims;
  3. “Reinterpreting” events;
  4. Using official channels to give an appearance of justice;
  5. Intimidation.

‘Official channels use’ is an especially pertinent outrage tactic that relies on institutional processes to disempower victims. I use the term ‘victim’ here strategically. Flavia Dzodan (2018) argues that moving away from the term victim (in favour of ‘survivor’) evades the need for justice.* Paula McDonald and colleagues (2010) write:

‘Using official channels includes reports to senior officials, grievance procedures, and appeals to organisational boards, internal ombudsmen, external bodies, or professional organisations. Most official channels emphasise formal processes, require confidentiality, and focus on technicalities. Despite the best intentions of those running the procedures, the effect of many official channels is to dampen outrage: the immediacy and urgency of the problem is lost in the slow, ponderous processes. Meanwhile, observers often believe justice is being done, although outcomes seldom live up to expectations.’

– Paula McDonald, Tina Graham and Brian Martin (2010)

Let’s unpack these outrage tactics via official channels, and the role of institutions in re-traumatising victims. I discuss how organisations can instead take more proactive action to end sexual harassment.

Outrage tactics

The study by Paula McDonald, Tina Graham and Brian Martin (2010) analyses 23 cases of workplace sexual harassment that went before the courts. The paper helps us to understand which strategies the judicial system rewards, and how institutions maintain a culture of silence and inequality, by believing victims only in limited contexts.

Perpetrators of sexual harassment deploy multiple outrage tactics at any given time, often devaluing the survivor’s work performance; undermining their moral worth; using censorship; diminishing the severity and impact of harassment; and using intimidation or bribery.

Most survivors are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs and other retaliation. Most try to manage the problem by staying quiet as long as possible or by confronting their harassers directly. These strategies rarely work because harassers seldom cease without external pressure.

Survivors are scared no one will believe and support them. Harassers count on this – critiquing survivors for taking too long to report (“if it’s so bad, why didn’t you speak up sooner?”). Alternatively, harassers use swift reporting as proof that the psychological pain could not be so bad.

Harassers will also point to official anti-harassment policies as proof that harassment could not have taken place (“they undertook the harassment training, didn’t they?”). Harassers will also use their “clean employment records” as evidence—no other cases of abuse exist against them, so how could this case be harassment?

The “good guy” defence is big in academia and other research contexts.

Sexual harassers paradoxically rely on official channels to excuse their actions after a victim reports harassment.

“[Perpetrators] …typically claimed the issue had been dealt with through formal procedures and, consequently, that justice had been served.”

– Paula McDonald, Tina Graham and Brian Martin (2010)

Good policies are important – but they are not enough. They need routine and proactive evaluation.

Harassers use their “model” reputations as pre-emptive armour against their victims.

The research and academic communities must not let policies and prestige get in the way of women’s safety.

Defence against harassment

Survivors use multiple tactics to defend their case. Most rely on exposure, alongside internal reporting and other strategies. Exposure includes telling friends, coworkers, managers, and as a last resort, the media. Without exposure, harassment is likely to be prolonged. This shouldn’t be the case, but that’s reality.

Senior scientists who think there’s a nice, “quiet” and “professional” way to deal with harassment are perpetuating a damaging myth.

The fact is that institutions either fail to act on reports through official processes, or else they wait an excessively long time to take action, wearing down the victim’s mental health and wellbeing (Sara Ahmed, 2018). Safety would be greatly enhanced if all organisations preemptively established a zero tolerance culture to harassment. Instead, too many organisations force women to go public or seek media to find justice denied to them through official channels.

Post-trauma ripple effect

The post-trauma of sexual harassment and sexual assault has a “ripple effect” affecting women’s decision-making to report or not report, as well as their decision to seek help or not seek help. The impact is multidimensional, from loss of self-confidence to fractured trust to financial insecurity, and other issues stemming from lack of workplace safety.

In the report, No Longer Silent (2005) survivors discuss the aftermath of assault. Here are some pertinent quotes showing the breath of impact:

People don’t understand that it affects every decision and path I go down from here on in. It runs in such a deep way. It affects how I communicate with people. Anywhere a male is present, I want to be invisible. I go out very little and only when I have to get petrol or food. I haven’t been out at night for a long time, so I’ve asked a trusted male friend to take me out because I need protection and safety. I always feel threatened. I used to love men; I hate them now.

– Kendra (p. 80)

I lost everything including my job; he was still at the workplace, so I couldn’t return. I had no dignity left to lose. I isolated myself from my work friends rather than tell them. He told stories so that other people disbelieved me. I tried to suicide but I was stopped by police.

– Michelle (p. 80)

He’s robbed me of my job, my dignity, my self-esteem, my children – and he hasn’t been punished one bit. It affects your whole life. I can’t trust men; I can’t work because there are males in the workplace. I’ve lost my religious faith… You’re the one who’s had everything taken from you: dreams, hopes, faith, love, self-esteem, friends. People don’t realise the level of harm.

– Dianne A. (p. 80)

I became very withdrawn; there was a dramatic change in my personality. I changed from being confident, assertive and happy to being miserable, helpless, and not having much direction in life.

– Christina (p. 80)

The SAFE13 study finds that sexual harassment is prevalent in fieldwork sites (Kathryn Clancy et. al. 2014). It severely impacts on the individual’s professional and personal lives, as well as negatively affecting diversity and innovation in science.

Intersectionality matters. This concept illustrates how the impact of gender inequality at work is compounded by racial discrimination, and other forms of institutional disadvantage (Kimberle Crenshaw 1989). Women of colour in science experience multiple forms of harassment (Kathryn Clancy et. al. 2017).

How can organisations stop sexual harassment? By creating and promoting a workplace culture where harassment is deterred. How to do this, exactly?

“By encouraging reporting and leaving no doubt that management will take complaints seriously. They should never fail to follow through on harassment claims or enforce harassment policies.. Reporting the problem, in other words, should be encouraged and not punished in any formal or informal way.”

Katina Sawyer and Christian Thoroughgood (2017)

To be clear, this includes protecting:

  1. Foremost: victims of harassment
  2. Supporters of victims
  3. People speaking out or raising awareness of harassment in the workplace.

Silencing victims

Prof Joan C Williams and Kate Massinger (2016) show that women are “harassed out of science,” through sexual harassment and parental discrimination. I would also add racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism. On first issue, the researcher write:

“The first step is to break the silence surrounding sexual harassment”

Joan C. Williams and Kate Massinger (2016)

Intersectionality is the recognition that minority women face multiple disadvantages. Race along with gender and other discriminations lead to minority women of colour being “harassed out of science.” We need institutional reform, not protection of “superstar” academic perpetrators. Too many senior scientists are expending a lot of energy exercising their “outrage tactics” – discrediting women; rewriting interpretations of harassment; and upholding perpetrators through official channels.

There have been far too many examples of high profile institutions more concerned with reputational hiccups suffered by male harassers, or caught up with their own inaction, leading to the protection of the powerful, rather than their victims (Zevallos 2018).

Proactive institutions don’t just hide behind toothless polies, they implement robust programs for behaviour change, and they welcome public transparency and accountability on harassment investigations.

Implementing change

To be a beacon of good practice, institutions should seek to:

  • Promote minorities into decision-making roles, to ensure policies are enforced with an intersectionality framework;
  • Stop protecting harassers;
  • Champion victim’s voices;
  • Encourage reporting and take action on harassment and discrimination; and
  • Practice public reflection on how the organisation will achieve change.

 I’ve previously outlined other institutional actions (Zevallos 2016):

  1. Speak up on harassment culture: When you hear or see a colleague being made to feel uncomfortable due to gender and sexual issues, a few simple words calling out this behaviour can make a big difference.
  2. Lead by example: find regular opportunities to discuss issues of sexual harassment (and racism and other forms of discrimination). Invite an expert on discrimination to give talks, or discuss useful anti-harassment resources.
  3. Make it easier to report harassment: information escrows can be one way to manage confidential sexual harassment claims, where a third-party agent holds onto anonymised reports until a second complaint is made. When two independent claims are made, an investigation can be launched. Alternatively, host regular confidential discussions with students and staff that allow institutions to gather confidential feedback about incidents that individuals are otherwise too afraid to report. 
  4. Make sure policies work: administrators might ask themselves these two questions: 1) does my institution have evidence that the policies are working for the people they’re meant to protect? Absence of complaints does not necessarily mean your faculty, staff and students feel safe and supported. 2) How do you know if reporting mechanisms are working? Scientists who experience harassment don’t always know the options available to them, and those who do report are often unhappy with the outcome.
  5. Make safety a day-to-day priority: Relevant and ongoing anti-sexual harassment training should be part of managerial responsibilities.  (Note that training alone is not enough. See steps above).
  6. Strategic planning: successful science organisation needs to formulate clear targets and key performance indicators that directly address the elimination of harassment, gender bias, racial discrimination, and other forms of abuse.
  7. Take a collective stand against harassment: In order for institutions to make a clear commitment against harassment, discrimination and bias, they should publish data and analysis about their policies and practices. This makes institutions more publicly accountable.


An earlier version of my post was published on Twitter.

*Flavia Dzodan (2018) writes:

‘I suppose this is the root cause of why I have issues with not naming victims as such. The popularity of “survivor” and the negativity surrounding the word “victim” seems, at times, a neoliberal trick to eschew justice. The condition of victimhood, in a sense, is a demand to correct a wrong, to have a process towards justice. Something needs to be done to take someone out of their condition of victim towards a path of healing. Merely “surviving” something, on the other hand, doesn’t imply that the original wound or harm were healed, that the wrongs were corrected and addressed, etc. Someone can “survive” even with open wounds that last a lifetime.’


Sara Ahmed (2018) ‘The Time of Complaint,’ FeministKilljoys, 30 May. Online resource last accessed 7 March:

Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford, and Katie Hinde (2014) ‘Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees Report Harassment and Assault,’ PLOS ONE.

Kathryn Clancy, Katharine Lee, Erica Rodgers, and Christina Richey (2017) ‘Double Jeopardy in Astronomy and Planetary Science: Women of Colour Face Greater Risks of Gendered and Racial Harassment,’ JGR Planets, 122(7): 1610-1623.

Kimberle Crenshaw (1989) ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,’ University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(Article 8). Online resource last accessed 7 March 2020:

Flavia Dzodan (2018) ‘I Suppose This is the Root Cause of Why I Have Issues With Not Naming Victims as Such,’ Twitter, @redlightvoices (thread), 23 January. Online resource last accessed 7 March 2020:

Denise Lievore (2005) No Longer Silent: A Study of Women’s Help-Seeking Decisions and Service Responses to Sexual Assault. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Katina Sawyer and Christian Thoroughgood (2017) ‘How Companies Can Learn to Root Out Sexual Harassment,’ The Conversation, 24 October. Online resource last accesssed 7 March 2020:

United Nations Women Australia (2019) About International Women’s Day. Online resource last accessed 7 March 2020:

Joan C. Williams and Kate Massinger (2015) ‘How Women Are Harassed Out of Science,’ The Atlantic, 25 July. Online resource last accessed 7 March 2020:

Zuleyka Zevallos (2016) ‘How to Stop the Sexual Harassment of Women in Science: Reboot the System,’ The Conversation, 29 January. Online resource last accessed 7 March 2020:

Zuleyka Zevallos (2018) ‘Sexual Harassment in the Academy,’ The Other Sociologist, 4 June. Online resource last accessed 7 March 2020:

Zuleyka Zevallos (2019) ‘Using Intersectionality in Collective Responses to Sexual Harassment,’ The Other Sociologist, 25 April. Online resource last accessed 7 March 2020: