Where do women draw the line on sexual harassment in the workplace?

Calling out sexual harassment in the workplace can be a difficult thing to do. And some are going to great lengths to avoid making an official complaint.

Every day people are expected to make judgement calls about sexual harassment at work. 

If a colleague sticks his hand up your skirt, would you consider that harassment?  What if he was emailing you pornographic images?

From suggestive remarks, offensive jokes, to inappropriate leering, sexual harassment behaviour can take many forms. These are examples of the many stories discussed in the latest episode of SBS Insight.

Kim recounts this time a colleague who would send her explicit photos of "increasingly fruitiness" to gauge her reaction.

"Any time I saw an email come through, I knew what it was, I just would close it down … and I could hear him chuckling to himself in the cubicle beside me," Kim said.  

Despite the inappropriateness of the emails, Kim did not tell management about it.

Another guest Gina remembers the two times she was harassed by someone she had worked with for about two years.

"There was a man … not in my team but on the same floor. We always got along really well, we'd just have playful banter, I considered him a friend."

The incident happened during a work Christmas party.

"I wasn't drinking because I had exams coming up; he definitely was. It almost became a bit of a joke, people buying him more drinks because he was getting more and more outrageous. He acted really physically inappropriate towards me … Touching me in ways that I wasn't comfortable with, put his hand up my dress, just in view of other people but not in a way that other people were doing anything or saying anything about it."

"So I didn't know how to react at the time. This is quite a few years ago and I was a lot younger and really inexperienced about what to do in a situation because I was out of the work environment, it was difficult to know what to do," Gina says.

The majority of people who experience sexual harassment do not report it, according to a national phone survey.

One Melbourne neurosurgeon who was successful in her harassment claim against a former colleague, said her medical career was derailed since winning her case.  What lengths are people going to avoid disclosing it and will it hurt your career if you choose to speak out?

Kim told SBS Insight she was worried that by saying something, it would make the office environment "completely nasty for everybody".

"To him he was just having a laugh. He didn't see that there was anything wrong with that, even though I'd said that no, it's not okay … someone had tried to report him in the past and he'd made several comments about political correctness has gone too far and she's just stuck up that can't take a joke," she said.

Kim used humour as a tactic to diffuse the situation. 

"I just turned around to him and said:  "Look, why would I want to see this? Why would I want to see tits?  You know,  if I really want to I can look down. Actually you've got a pretty good pair, you could look down too." And he went bright red, laughed to himself and that was the last thing that I heard."

'He was married, I didn't want to make things bad for him ... I thought me causing trouble with him would look badly on me.'

Gina ended up telling a few peers on a personal level about her experience, but even now admits, she would rather keep quiet, because she didn't her reputation to be scrutinised.    

"I would love, in hindsight to say yes with all the knowledge that I have now, but I don't think that I would."

"I don't want to, I wouldn't want to bring myself under scrutiny about how I act, how I dress, how I am perceived in the workplace. I'm there to do be a job, I want to be respected for my work and I also like to be liked … because this guy was so popular, I thought me causing trouble with him would look badly on me," Gina said.

The colleague, who Gina says was "very well liked", eventually resigned. 

"He was charming, very good looking, everyone loved him including, including my manager who I respected hugely.  She thought the world of him and that itself stopped me from talking to her about it because I was embarrassed."

"I thought I don't want her to look at me differently, I don't want her to lose respect for me because I thought he was a friend. I didn't want - stupidly I didn't want to cause any trouble for him. He was married, I didn't want to make things bad for him even though it was uncomfortable for me," Gina explains.

In certain professions dominated by men, the bullying and sexism can not only be ingrained but commonplace. How are women navigating it? How do you change a toxic workplace culture let alone an entire vocation?

Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick firmly believes it's a basic human right to be able to work in workplace that is free from violence and that change needs to come from the leadership.

"Sexual harassment doesn't jump out of nowhere, it grows in organisations where demeaning attitudes about women are okay and where there's no courageous leadership because what we do know in organisations that are doing it well, firstly there's a zero tolerance to it and the leader of the organisation is very clear about that."

"Secondly, we know that you're not victimised if you choose to speak out, and thirdly you have to believe that action will be taken," Broderick said.

Do you think schools or workplaces need to do more to educate people about anti-discrimination and anti-harassment behaviour?

Source: Insight