Unstable work increases risk of unwanted sexual advances

In brief

  • Workers in unstable or contract full-time jobs have a higher risk of experiencing unwanted sexual advances at work than permanent full-time workers.
  • Being younger, female and working in the service sector increases the risk of reporting sexual harassment.
  • Precarious work situations, particularly in the service sector, should be a priority setting for interventions against sexual harassment against women.

Published: January 2009

Why was this study done?

Workplace sexual harassment is a significant problem, affecting women more than men. It often goes unreported. Workers in precarious employment arrangements – such as unstable or non-permanent jobs – may be particularly vulnerable to harassment at work. This vulnerability may occur as these workers may have less power in the workplace, fewer protections and may be less likely to report harassment given the instability of their jobs. This study looks at sexual harassment across different types of employment arrangements in a group of workers in Victoria, Australia.

How was the study done?

The researchers interviewed 1,101 workers (526 men and 575 women) by telephone in Victoria. The interviewers aimed to match the characteristics of Australia’s general population of workers, such as the mix of blue and white collar workers. As part of a larger survey that asked workers about their jobs, exposure to work hazards and other factors, they were asked about unwanted sexual advances.

What did the researchers find?

About four per cent of the workers reported unwanted sexual advances at work. Researchers found that employment status was associated with an increased risk of sexual harassment. Workers in casual full-time work, in contracts or those who were self-employed had a higher risk of reporting sexual harassment than permanent full-time workers. This relationship occurred even after adjusting for age, gender and occupational skill level. Other factors associated with an increased risk of sexual harassment were:

  • Gender — females had more than three times the risk than men
  • Age — younger workers (aged 18-30) were more likely to report unwanted advances than workers aged 41-plus
  • Type of work — workers in service industries reported more unwanted advances than those in manufacturing.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

This study was thorough in ensuring that different types of workers in various sectors were equally represented. However, because there was only one survey question about sexual harassment, researchers didn’t have any further details on the event, such as who did the harassment or when it occurred.