Research suggests lower-ranked public servants can use sexual harassment to take their bosses down a notch.

An analysis of harassment patterns in the Australian Public Service has found that traditional approaches to sexual harassment may need a rethink.

The study reveals that as more women assume senior roles, they are increasingly faced with “contrapower harassment”.

University of Antwerp researcher Jan Wynen says female managers in the private sector might be even more targeted, as it lacks the same culture of protection that government workplaces have.

Dr Wynen argues in a paper in the Australian Journal of Public Administration that the traditional dynamics of perpetrator and victim in sexual harassment need to be reviewed.

“Sexual harassment is often still portrayed as an abuse of power in the workplace,” the academic said.

“A good example is the popular characterisation of the ‘sleazy’ male supervisor harassing his ‘powerless’ female secretary.”

But Dr Wynen’s analysis of the 100,000 response to Australian Public Service Commission's 2013 staff survey found different influences at play.

He found that women in management roles and aged between 30 and 44 were more likely to be sexually harassed than female public servants with no supervisory authority.

The finding reveals new challenges for the protection of women and sexual minorities at work.

Dr Wynen says it plays into previous research that shows women are targeted more often if they refuse to adhere to the expectations of male colleagues.

“Sexual harassment should therefore be regarded as a tool to police appropriate ways of doing gender in the workplace and to penalise gender nonconformity,” he wrote.

“Sexual harassment is often still merely regarded as the male boss abusing his position in the workplace to harass his female secretary.

“The reality proves to be far more complex and it is necessary for organisational policies and training to reflect the diversity of harassment experiences.

“More women are climbing the career ladder and breaking the glass ceiling, yet the organisational and legal responses to sexual harassment have not kept pace with this evolution.”

Dr Wynen says things could be worse in the private sector.

“The Australian Government is expected to be more sensitive to issues of harassment, representation, and fairness than those of the private sector,” he wrote.

“The existence of contrapower sexual harassment in our public sector sample may even be more pronounced in the private sector.

He says government departments and agencies need new procedures to allow women to report harassment while protecting their authority.

“In cases of contrapower harassment, organisational policies, and more broadly, organisational culture should allow victims to come forward without undermining their own authority,” Dr Wynen wrote.