Music Australia News

Is Sexual Harassment Rife in the Creative industries?

Dawn Bennett
| March 27, 2017

By Dawn Bennett and Sophie Hennekam

With Victoria backing important industry based initiatives to address sexual harassment in music, we thought it constructive to provide some broader context around this issue. This short report summarises an article that examines sexual harassment in the creative industries. It was derived from a larger study with the Creative Workforce Initiative at Curtin University. The full article can be downloaded here.


Recent research (Bennett and Hennekam, 2017) conducted with female workers in the Netherlands creative industries sought to better understand general hiring and promotions practices. Of the 32 participants, 21 told of sexual harassment. For 17 of those women, harassment was undesirable but it was tolerated as ‘normal’. Four women had refused to give in to sexual demands, but none of these women had reported their harassment to authorities. Given that a number of recent studies (see de Peuter, Cohen and Brophy, 2015; Leslie and Catungal, 2012; Stokes, 2013) have now identified instances of sexual harassment it is likely that this situation is mirrored elsewhere, including in Australia.

Why is this the case?

Sexual harassment includes unwanted verbal comments, jokes and sexual gestures, demands for sexual favours and dates, touching, and coercive attempts to establish a sexual interaction (Chamberlain, Crowley, Hope and Hodson, 2008). The consequences of harassment include anxiety, anger, powerlessness, humiliation, depression, stress, and physical ill health (Collinsworth, Fitzgerald and Drasgow, 2009). O’Leary-Kelly, Sperry, Bates and Lean (2009) have found that these can lead to absenteeism, lower job satisfaction, distraction, reduced commitment, less productivity and attrition.

Women in the study considered sexual harassment to be “part of the job” and “the only way to get ahead”. They related their experiences to competition for work, the industry culture, gendered power relations and the importance of informal networks.

Whilst newcomers determine how to react by observing others in their workplace (Louis, 1980), many creative industries workers are involved as project-based workers with multiple firms and networks; they need to work out the culture and behaviours of each of these relationships (Taormina, 1997). Compared with other workers, Underhill and Quinlan (2011) find they may also be less aware of their entitlements and less likely to have access to organizational support mechanisms and networks of colleagues.

A culture of sexual harassment is also more likely in industries with a gendered power differential: thus women working in male-dominated sub-sectors of the creative industries face a double disadvantage.

The study revealed gendered power relations with male teachers, editors, choreographers, gallery owners and producers. Unusually, women in positions of power do not appear to be protected from sexual harassment. This is possibly because power in the creative industries can take the form of reputation and status rather than increased security and stability.

Finally, informal networks emerged as central to getting and sustaining work. These networks are known for their potential to be both discriminatory and exclusionary (Christopherson, 2011)

What might be done about it?

Women in the study reported that sexual advances and favours were variously normal, part of the job, and the only way to get ahead. If women see that sexual behaviours are tolerated they are likely to do the same, reinforcing an accepting sexual harassment climate. Sexual behaviour needs to be discouraged by ensuring a climate in which it is not tolerated and in which recruitment practices are transparent.

In the creative industries, Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2015) describe harassment as being often malleable and subtle, thus hard to pinpoint and prove. Many women were unsure when ‘normal’ behaviours became sexual harassment. If they reported harassment, they were fearful of reprisals and of a lack of action, and they were reluctant to be seen as a victim. Women socialized into a culture in which sexual harassment is normalized are unlikely to understand and exercise their rights without support.

This highlights the need for education and support mechanisms. There is a need for sector-specific research and guidelines, training, and further work with unions and professional associations to provide worker protection strategies traditionally undertaken by organizations. These might include access to information and counselling support, peer mentorship, sensitivity training, and agreement on acceptable codes of conduct.

Overall, effective sexual harassment prevention requires action at the individual, educational, sectoral and governmental levels, beginning with the message that clear sexual harassment is never acceptable.

For the full article, please see: Hennekam, S., & Bennett, D. (2017). Sexual harassment in the creative industries: Tolerance, culture and the need for change. Gender, Work and Organization. doi: 10.1111/gwao.12176.


Chamberlain, L.J., Crowley, M., Tope, D. and Hodson, R. (2008). Sexual harassment in organizational context. Work and Occupations, 35(3), pp. 262–295.

Christopherson, S. (2011). Connecting the Dots: Structure, strategy and subjectivity in the

entertainment media. In: M. Deuze (ed.), Managing Media Work. Thousand Oaks: Sage, pp. 179-190.

Collinsworth, L.L., Fitzgerald, L.F. and Drasgow, F. (2009). In harm’s way: factors related to psychological distress following sexual harassment. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(4), pp. 475-90.

de Peuter, G., Cohen, N.S. and Brophy, N. (2015). Interrogating internships: unpaid work, creative industries, and higher education. triple C, 1(3), pp. 29-33.

Hesmondhalgh, D. and Baker, S. (2015). Sex, gender and work segregation in the cultural industries. The Sociological Review, 63(S1), pp.  23-36.

O’Leary-Kelly, A.M., Bowes-Sperry, L., Bates, C.A. and Lean, E.R. (2009). Sexual harassment at work: a decade (plus) of progress. Journal of Management, 35, pp. 503-36.

Stokes, A. (2015). The glass runway how gender and sexuality shape the spotlight in

fashion design. Gender & Society, 29(2), pp. 219-243. See also

Taormina, R.J. (1997). Organizational socialization: A multidomain, continuous process model. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 5(1), pp. 29-47.

Underhill, E. and Quinlan, M. G. (2011). How precarious employment affects health and safety at work: the case of temporary agency workers. Industrial Relations, 66(3), pp. 397-421.

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