Queensland  University of Technology (QUT) Business School 


The Challenge 

Workplace sexual harassment is a persistent, pervasive and costly problem with significant consequences for individuals, organisations and society.

Research Impact Summary

  • Research findings have shaped policy and practice responses to sexual harassment in Australia and internationally
  • Research beneficiaries include businesses, Australian and international human rights, advocacy, government and law enforcement organisations, and their employees
  • The research has informed public understanding of workplace sexual harassment.

Shaping Public Understanding and Awareness 

The research has attracted substantial media attention. It was featured on an episode of SBS’s Insight program and on Channel 10’s The Project. The Financial Review and The Washington Post have reported on the research, as have the Huffington Post and the London School of Economics Business Review. McDonald has been commissioned to write three articles for The Conversation covering the findings of the VEOHRC report and a report into sexual harassment in the Australian Federal Police.

Untangling the Complexity 

The research into workplace sexual harassment, conducted by QUT Business School researchers from 2007 to 2019, disentangles the complex, systemic causes and consequences of workplace sexual harassment and poses a range of responses. Research collaborators include employment advocacy organisations, government human rights commissions and industry groups such as the Victorian Male Champions of Change.

The research provided new insights into—

  • Evidence of harasser tactics
  • The effectiveness of conciliation as an individualised form of alternative dispute resolution
  • The nature and causes of ‘atypical’ sexual harassment
  • The short- and longer-term psychological consequences of sexual harassment
  • Deficiencies in how organisations typically manage sexual harassment complaints
  • Workplace gender equality including sexual harassment and pregnancy, and family responsibilities discrimination
  • Bystander interventions to harassment
  • Extent and characteristics of ‘everyday sexism.’

Independent Review into Sex Discrimination and Harassment 

Led by QUT’s Professor Paula McDonald, the research has achieved four major results: 

The research helped shape the Victorian Equal Opportunity & Human Rights Commission’s (VEOHRC) in-depth study of what was believed to be widespread sexual harassment and predatory behaviour by members of the Victorian police force. VEOHRC invited McDonald to join an expert panel convened to conduct the study. Her research informed the study’s methodology including the design of data collection instruments. Attracting over 5000 staff responses, it became the world’s largest survey of sexual harassment in a policing environment. The phase one report, ‘Independent Review into Sex Discrimination and Sexual Harassment, including Predatory Behaviour in Victoria Police,’ was released in 2015. It revealed entrenched sexism and a high tolerance for sexualised behaviour, both of which undermined the safety and welfare of Victoria Police’s 17,000 employees. In response, Victoria Police committed to implement all of the report’s 20 recommendations.

A subsequent audit by the VEOHRC showed that Victoria Police had made significant progress. For example, the force adopted a research-informed complaints management model. Under the model senior members of the force were trained to prevent discrimination and harassment. As a result, Victoria Police reported that women were, ‘more likely to come forward and report harassment.’ As publicly acknowledged by the Police Chief Commissioner, the impact of both the report and its recommendations has been profound and longstanding.

Shaping Organisational Policy, Reviews and Responses 

Following the Victoria Police review, other public sector agencies have adopted the methodology informed by the research. These include:

  • The Victorian Public Service’s methodology for a sexual harassment module in the government-wide People Matters survey (60,000 respondents)
  • The SA Equal Opportunity Commission’s review of South Australia Police
  • The Australian Federal Police gender diversity and inclusion review
  • The VEOHRC equity and diversity review of the Country Fire Authority
  • Reviews into sexual harassment in Australian Universities and at Sydney University residential colleges.

The research has been presented to various organisations to improve their understanding of sexual harassment and how to address it:

  • The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Queensland Police, Fire and Emergency Services
  • Australasian College of Sport Physicians
  • Queensland Police Crime Command Unit
  • Australian National Committee for UN Women
  • St George and Westpac banks.

In 2017, McDonald’s research informed an expert report commissioned by Legal Aid Queensland and in 2018 it underpinned a full day training session for managers at Queensland Corrective Services.

Government Policy Development

McDonald’s research motivated the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to engage her to help design two national prevalence studies on sexual harassment and interpret the results. Her brief included the preparation of the study report and an online resource designed to encourage appropriate bystander responses. The then Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, said the study report, ‘provides the basis for understanding the role of bystanders and implementing effective strategies to support and encourage action against sexual harassment in Australian workplaces’. The AHRC also incorporated the research into its national Know Where the Line Is sexual harassment strategy.

Internationally, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cited the research extensively in its Select Task Force Report on the Study of Harassment. Further, the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee invited McDonald to provide expert evidence to the Status of Women’s inquiry into Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace (2014), which resulted in the research being cited frequently in the Committee’s report. The research was also used to develop recommendations for new sexual harassment policies in federal workplaces, mandatory employee and supervisor training, complaint handling and dispute resolution. Advice on strategies and policies to address sexual harassment has also been provided to UN Women via a two-day workshop in New York (2018) and to the UN World Food Program (2019).

For further details, read the Impact Study on the ARC website.

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