I'm really committed to models of academic work that
are less masculinist and aggressive. So I don't like to see women attaining situations of power and using that power in ways that can be sort of punitive.

The #MeToo movement quickly spread around the world in October 2017 raising awareness about sexual assault [1] and sexual harassment [2], especially in the workplace. Beginning in the film and TV industry, #MeToo provided women a tool to unearth the far-reaching scars of sexual misconduct.


The #MeToo movement was also adopted by women in academia [3]. A unique hashtag, #MeTooPhD, emerged for university staff and students to share their experiences of sexual misconduct. A public spreadsheet [4] was even launched to invite survivors of sexual harassment and assault in academia to document their experiences. Not all harassment and discrimination is gender-based, however women in the workplace are overwhelmingly more likely to face sexual and gender harassment compared to men [5].


What is sexual harassment?


The standard definition of harassment is unwelcome behaviour that intimidates, offends, or humiliates a person [6]. Different types of harassment have been identified, of which quid pro quo harassment [7] and hostile environment harassment [7] are two prevalent forms. Importantly, sexual harassment is illegal as it violates the Australian Sex Discrimination Act (1984) [8]. Sexually harassing behaviours, as defined by the Act, include unwelcome touching, staring or leering, intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body, and suggestive comments or jokes. The Act makes sexual harassment unlawful in many public places, including workplaces and educational institutions. Although the perpetrator bears primary responsibility, employers may also be held responsible for sexual harassment committed by their employees if they have not taken reasonable steps to ensure a safe working environment.  


Women often face higher rates of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. In the Australian Human Rights Commission’s fourth national survey on sexual harassment [5], 39% of women, compared to 26% of men, reporting experiencing sexual harassment at work during the past five years, which included 23% of women (16%) of men experiencing it in the 12 months prior to the survey. Young people are most vulnerable to workplace sexual harassment.

Are you unsure if you’ve experienced sexual harassment yourself? To find out, you can fill out a self-report inventory of sexual harassment to see what sorts of actions count. For example, the Sexual Harassment Inventory [9] (available as part of our Wellbeing survey) is a commonly used measure of sexual harassment in organisations. Similarly, the Schedule of Sexist Events [10] provides a range of examples of sexually harassing events, focusing both on lifetime experiences and recent instances of sexist discrimination experienced by women.

Participative (democratic)[4]

Harassment in academia


Past surveys of working women have suggested that approximately 1 in every 2 women will be harassed at some point during their academic or working lives [11]. The academic world, with its hierarchies and blurred lines between personal and professional lives, is a fertile environment for harassment.


“A chilly climate”, is the term coined in 1982 by Roberta Hall and Bernice Sandler to refer to the host of behaviours and attitudes that contribute to an inhospitable situation for women in academia. The term “hostile climate” is often used instead today. This climate includes overt sexism or sexual harassment, but also subtle discrimination, such as mentioning a female speaker’s appearance (“eye candy”) rather than her accomplishments during a press conference [12]. Importantly, a hostile or chilly climate can undermine women’s self-esteem, subsequently impairing career success in academia.


The so-called power imbalance between faculty advisers and advisees is often cited as being a key contributor to harassment in academia. Supervisors can make or break a promising researcher’s career. A 2014 study focused on the climate of scientific fieldwork reported that women respondents who experienced harassment and assault overwhelmingly reported it occurring during their trainee career stages [13]. Harassment was most likely to be perpetrated against women by their superiors in the field site professional hierarchy, whereas men experienced harassment from their peers.  


Misconduct in academia can, however, also involve academic contrapower harassment [14]. This occurs when someone lower in status (e.g., a student) harasses someone higher-up the hierarchy (e.g., a professor). A 2016 study showed that women faculty members were more likely to have students challenge their authority, argue or refuse to follow course policies, and exhibit disrespectful or disruptive behaviours [14], all of which are forms of (non-sexual) harassment.


Importantly, harassment can result in a host of negative effects. Victims of sexual harassment report both mental health issues e.g., anxiety, stress-related illnesses and physical wellbeing complaints e.g., nausea and sleeplessness, fear and anger, and feelings of helplessness and isolation [15]. Harassment is also costly to organisations, with potential outcomes including involuntarily job loss and career interruptions [16], decreased job satisfaction and higher absenteeism [17], and damage to interpersonal relationships at work [18]. Overall, sexual harassment is a costly workplace problem.


Sexual harassment presents a serious threat to women’s academic pursuits. A 1998 study found that roughly half of undergraduate and graduate women had experienced some form of sexual harassment, at least once, from an instructor or professor while at university [19]. Such experiences of sexual misconduct [20] induced a negative campus climate for victims. Furthermore, as harassment increased, women felt less respected, less accepted, treated less fairly, and had greater doubts about their self-efficacy. When presented with a hypothetical question about whether they would still choose to attend the university if they could go back and start over, victims were generally less likely to agree. Sexual harassment, therefore, has a serious negative impact on women’s pursuit of education.


More recently (2017), the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine (CWSEM) conducted a study on the influence of sexual harassment in academia on career advancement of women in the scientific, technical, and medical workforce [21]. The study focuses on the extent to which women in these fields are victimized by sexual harassment and identifies policies and strategies that can be helpful in preventing and addressing sexual harassment in these areas. The study is ongoing, but you can keep up to date with the release of the consensus report and study results here.


Speaking up about harassment


Dealing with harassment is not easy, as there are pros and cons to speaking up. Below, we outline some of the most important things to know about speaking up.


What to do about harassment?

  • Speak up. Make it clear that harassment is never okay.

  • Talk to a supervisor, manager, or workplace health and safety representative.

  • If you want more information about Australia’s workplace rights and rules and protection against harassment and discrimination, visit the Commonwealth Fairwork Ombudsman or call 131394.

  • If you want to learn more about the rights and responsibilities of you and your employer, visit the Lawstuff website.

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