o prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s important to understand the key underlying drivers of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a social problem. Stopping it is not just about altering the behaviour of individuals; we need to change the culture and environment of workplaces in which it occurs. To prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place, we must recognise the systemic and contextual issues that drive these behaviours. Primary prevention is all about addressing the root causes (or drivers) of sexual harassment. 

Power relates to the possession of control, authority, or influence over others; it has many dimensions. The concept of power, and specifically, the misuse of power, is central to understanding the causes of sexual harassment.   

In the workplace, power dynamics are commonly thought to be associated with an individuals’ seniority, age or value to a business. For instance, a harasser might be in a position of power due to being the owner of a business, a valued customer of a business, a direct supervisor of a person harassed, or in a position to influence that person’s future career prospects.   

Gender inequality is a key driver, or underlying cause, of workplace sexual harassment.  Other forms of discrimination and disadvantage create power imbalances in the workplace which can intensify an individual’s experience of sexual harassment. 

Sexual harassment is recognised at an international level as a form of violence against women, with many of the same underlying drivers as other forms of violence against women. Gender inequality occurs when power, opportunities and resources are not shared equally between men and women in society and when women are not valued and respected as much as men.  

Gender inequality

The unequal distribution of power, resources, opportunity, and value afforded to men and women in a society due to prevailing gendered norms and structures.

Gender inequality is also created by attitudes, norms and behaviours that suggest that heterosexuality is the normal or preferred sexual orientation and that people’s preferred gender identity is the one they are born with (cisgender). These norms, attitudes and behaviours have an impact on how people understand binary gender roles and gendered norms in society. There are other aspects of the social context that are also relevant to an understanding of violence against women.  

 Gender inequality cannot be disentangled from other social injustices because gendered inequality frequently intersects with other forms of structural and systemic discrimination, inequality and injustice. This means that the value afforded to women and men is not afforded in the same way for all women or all men, and that our society, institutions and organisations are shaped by those intersections. These intersections also influence the prevalence, dynamics and impacts of violence against women.  

 Consider the graphic below  – gender inequality lies below the surface driving sexual harassment.