New survey reveals rise in sexual harassment at universities

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Sexual harassment in higher education workplaces has jumped more than 52 per cent, according to the results of a new survey.

“Higher education staff are being subjected to shocking levels of harassment and discrimination,” said National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) National President Dr Alison Barnes.

The preliminary findings of the NTEU 2023 survey on sexual harassment, sexism, and gender-based bias in higher education were released today.

More than 2000 respondents participated in the study – the second national survey on the issue conducted by the NTEU since 2018.

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Almost one in three (29 per cent) respondents reported personal experiences of sexual harassment, up from 19 per cent in 2018 – a rise of almost 53 per cent.

“The results of this survey are alarming and deeply disappointing. The higher education sector has clearly not made progress since our 2018 survey,” Dr Barnes said.

The key findings from the survey include:

  • A rise in personal experiences of sexual harassment from 19 per cent in 2018 to 29 per cent in 2023
  • Women continue to bear the brunt, with 38 per cent reporting personal experiences of harassment
  • Some 50 per cent of respondents were aware of others who have been sexually harassed in their workplaces, compared with 36 per cent in the previous survey
  • The majority of perpetrators were co-workers (41 per cent), followed by managers (34 per cent) and students (29 per cent)
  • Only 13 per cent of those experiencing harassment made a formal complaint, with 46 per cent not complaining at all

Concerningly, 52 per cent reported being encouraged to drop their complaints, with 44 per cent saying they faced negative consequences from their employers.

“When over a quarter of respondents experience sexual harassment, and half of them are aware of others being harassed, it’s clear that this isn’t just an isolated issue; it’s a systemic failure,” Dr Barnes said.

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“Respondents to our survey have said while they know there are sexual harassment policies in place in their workplaces, most don’t report sexual harassment because of institutional cultures that ignore, minimise or even target victims of sexual harassment,” she said. “That, combined with rampant insecure work, gender inequity and bias, has made universities unsafe workplaces for far too many people.”

The result, she said, is that perpetrators “freely continue to commit acts of sexual harassment and sexual assault”.

“The evidence shows a dire need for change,” Dr Barnes said. “It’s outrageous that so many of these survey results are actually worse than they were five years ago.”

Dr Barnes’ statement labelled sexual harassment as “a clear psychosocial risk”.

“It must be treated as a work health and safety issue and employers must meet their legal obligations to ensure safety for their staff and students,” she said.

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The survey highlighted the significant role of gender-based harassment, with 74 per cent of people who experienced sexual harassment identifying gender as the basis for further negative experiences.

The NTEU wants all higher education employers to implement a proactive approach that includes an effective, victim-centric complaint process. The Union is also calling for regulatory changes that include the transparent annual reporting of sexual assault and harassment by universities, as well as other tertiary education providers.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]