A recent survey suggests Australia’s universities are failing to protect students from harassment.
IF asked to identify those sectors plagued most by sexual harassment, few would point the finger at Australia’s university sector.
Yet disturbingly, there is a high incidence of these deplorable behaviours occurring within the student population.
A Universities Australia (UA) survey of close to 44,000 students last month revealed the full extent to which students encountered sexual harassment during their time at university.
One in six students said they had been sexually harassed. One in 12 said it had happened in the past 12 months.
Sexual harassment is usually defined as someone having been subjected to behaviour they found improper or unwanted, which made them feel uncomfortable or was offensive because of its sexual nature.
Such behaviour includes but is not limited to: catcalling; indecent phone calls, texts, emails or social media posts; indecent exposure; inappropriate comments; online harassment; and unwanted exposure to sexual content.
Half of the survey respondents who were harassed knew some or all the perpetrators and almost 50 per cent of incidents happened in general campus areas.
Only one in 30 made a formal complaint and just one in six sought support.
Half of all students who had experienced sexual harassment knew nothing or very little about the formal reporting process or where to seek support.
The survey also identified alarming rates of sexual assault on Australian university campuses.
One in 20 students reported that they had been sexually assaulted since starting at university and one in 100 said it had happened in the past 12 months.
Sexual assault was defined in the survey as non-consensual sexual contact or acts including rape, fondling of sexual body parts, sexual kissing, or sexual penetration.
The survey found that women were far more likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted than men and that most perpetrators were male.
Gender-diverse students were at significantly greater risk than other groups of being sexually harassed or assaulted. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people living with disabilities and people from culturally diverse backgrounds were also identified as student cohorts at greater risk.
UA chairman John Dewar, who is also the vice-chancellor of Melbourne’s La Trobe University, described the survey results as “distressing, disappointing and confronting” and issued an unprecedented apology to the victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
“To every single university student who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault or has a friend, family member or loved one who has – I am sorry. I am sorry for what you endured. I am sorry for how that may have affected your relationships, your mental health, your studies and your life,” Professor Dewar said.
The survey revealed the rate of incidences of sexual harassment varied significantly across institutions.
The Australian National University had the highest number of respondents (26.1 per cent) who reported being sexually harassed at some point during their time at university, while Central Queensland University recorded the lowest rate of incidence at 9.1 per cent.
Closer to home, 21.4 per cent of respondents reported they had experienced some form of sexual harassment while studying at the University of Western Australia, which headed the other WA institutions: Murdoch University (18.5 per cent), Curtin University (15.6 per cent) and Edith Cowan University (15 per cent).
The UA survey followed a 2016 report commissioned by the Australian Human Rights Commission. While this year’s survey identified a lower overall prevalence of sexual harassment, it was conducted after students spent almost two years learning from home because of the pandemic.
The high incidence of unreported sexual harassment that occurs in many universities is disturbing. It also has the potential to adversely impact the business community.
Perpetrators who graduate from university and enter the workforce without having endured any consequences for their actions could bring with them unacceptable behaviours, undermining efforts to eradicate concerning levels of sexual harassment in the workplace.
With sexual harassment a major concern for universities and the business community, what is needed is for leaders from both segments to combine resources and share tactics to radically reduce the incidence of sexual misconduct in our community.
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• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA