Security Research

Young Women and Men Affected by Sexual Harassment during Professional Training and in the Workplace

Project Management: Dr. Birgitt Haller
Implementation: Dr. Helga Amesberger
Beate Gassner BA
Dr. Birgitt Haller
Funded by: Arbeiterkammer Wien (Chamber of Labour Vienna)
Arbeitsmarktservice Österreich (Public Employment Service Austria)
Completed: December 2016

The interviews with women and men between the ages of 17 and 25 focused on their experiences concerning sexual harassment, especially with regard to structural and personal difficulties of fighting back, confidants, and much needed measures of support. Interviews were not only conducted with women and men who were willing to discuss their experiences, but also with random people (who were contacted without previous information with regard to past harassment incidents). 31 women and 19 men were interviewed, partly in personal conversations, partly in groups. Additionally, interviews with experts from different professional fields were undertaken.

Two women (and none of the men) turned to the police in order to file a complaint; two underwent legal proceedings. Why do most victims keep sexual harassment a secret?

A major problem is the difficulty in identifying harassing behavior as such, since this constitutes a precondition for reaction. Usually, sexual harassment does not take place openly and unambiguously. Women interpret the friendly behavior of their male colleagues as collegial; flirting is socially acceptable and “unintentional” touches are not commented on. The longer the abusive behavior lasts, the more severe it gets – and the more difficult it is to bring to a halt. Moreover, the women do not want to be regarded as spoilsports. Young victims accept less severe forms of sexual harassment as a "normal" behavior, whereas older women better identify acts of harassment as they are more experienced.

With regard to young men, the taboo seems to be even stronger. In the course of the study, there was only one group meeting in which no participant reported ever witnessing sexual harassment, not even by a third party. Unsurprisingly, the meeting was held among (a group of) men.

In addition, while all interviewed women were victimized by men, the male discussants reported to be sexually harassed by both women and men, mostly by customers in their workplace.

The interviewees did not make acts of harassment which took place in the firm known, as they did not expect to find support within the firm. This assumption proved to be true in nearly all cases, except when the perpetrators were customers, not colleagues (such cases were less severe in comparison with sexual harassments by colleagues and senior employees). Only a few senior employees made clear to the staff that sexual harassment in the workplace was unacceptable. Some women confided in female colleagues who provided a sympathetic ear and the occasional comfort, but they very rarely offered support in taking action.

Most juveniles were not familiar with any counseling institutions which might provide them with support; the "Chamber of Labour" proved to be the most familiar one. In addition, most interviewees did not know whether a "work council" exists in the company or firm, and just a few interviewees mentioned having confidants in the training environment. Obviously, equal treatment laws and relevant institutions weren’t familiar to them as well.

Finally, victims of sexual harassment were almost exclusively supported by their private environment. They confided in their best friends or partners, and some confided in their parents. Openly discussing the harassment brought with it emotional relief and confirmation of victimization. This is important, as many young women dealt with concerns of contributing guilt and wondered whether they have provoked the harassment. Those concerns were not shared by the male victims.

Just one perpetrator had to face the consequences of his wrongful behavior; he was dismissed from his job following a court conviction. For the others, no sanctions were imposed, whereas several victims had to face both professional and/ or health issues resulting from the harassment.

On the social level, breaking the taboo of sexual harassment is a prerequisite for prevention. Moreover, it is important to strengthen equal treatment and anti-discrimination not only in the professional sphere but as a general principle. The fact that sexual harassment occurs more frequently in office parties or similar social events is an indicator that, at least in part, equal treatment is accepted as a rule in a professional context but it remains limited to the latter.

On a practical level it is important to support the self-empowerment of the staff members. Especially in the hospitality industry and other sectors where employees are more prone to be harassed staff members must be guided concerning potential responses to events of sexual harassment.