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The Hidden Business Problem: Domestic Violence

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

The Hidden Business Problem: Domestic Violence

Elizabeth Broderick
Sex Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Vincent Fairfax Speaker Series
Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne
24 October 2011


Thank you, Bob, for that generous
introduction and warm welcome. And thank you to G&T for hosting this

I am so pleased to be able to join you this evening for this
year’s Vincent Fairfax Speaker Series. I thought I might never make it
– for the last two days I have had the privilege of being on-board the
warship HMAS Sydney as it undertook war exercises offshore – part of my
defence review. As my staff gradually hit the decks one after the other with sea
sickness, I wondered whether arranging the sea visit to coincide with
tonight’s event was a smart move. I’m pleased to say I survived, not
only that I felt as if I’d dropped into the set of the Hunt for Red
October – it was a fascinating two days.

I would like to
acknowledge Mr Zegar Degraeve, the newly appointed Dean of the Melbourne
Business School, Mr Rob Cartwright, Chairman of the Vincent Fairfax Ethics in
Leadership Foundation and Angus and Emma White, Directors, Mr Tim Fairfax,
Chairman of the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and Sally White, Director,
John and Libby Fairfax of the Vincent Fairfax Family, other members of the
Fairfax family, and distinguished guests.

Sir Vincent Fairfax was one of
our country’s great leaders. He led not only by example, including
through the many and diverse leadership positions he held including serving in
the Australian Imperial Force, but also, notably, through his efforts to build
an Australia founded on robust and ethical leadership. His commitment to
fostering the leadership potential of others is a quality that is far too

Initiatives such as this very Speaker Series mean that the legacy
of Sir Vincent Fairfax continues to thrive and his vision of leadership endures.

Australia is certainly much better for it, and I am honoured to be able
to make a small contribution to his legacy.


I want to talk to you this evening about a hidden problem affecting
Australian business – domestic and family violence.

In my capacity
as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I talk regularly with some of
Australia’s most respected business leaders and visionaries.

talk about strategies for increasing gender diversity in leadership positions.
We talk about the steps business can take to reduce sexual harassment in the
workplace. We talk about how business can assist employees to balance work and
family responsibilities successfully.

The conversation is thoughtful
and constructive.

Yet, often when I turn to the topic of domestic
violence, I am politely told that it is a private and community matter; that
there is no role for business to play.

It seems to me there is a
triumvirate of related issues that impact on business – namely depression,
gender inequality and domestic violence.

It seems we can talk about the
first two but not the last.

So tonight, I want to share with you my
thoughts on the leadership role business can play in supporting victims and
survivors of domestic violence. I also want to touch on the socio-economic
benefits for business in taking on that role.

Before I begin, though,
let me acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. I pay my respects
to their elders past and present, and all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander men and women who work tirelessly to reduce domestic and family

A closer look in our own backyards: domestic violence in

As I travel around Australia, I often ask people to name
countries where they consider domestic violence to be a problem. More often
than not, they reel off a list of countries from overseas and, in doing so, fail
to recognise the high rates of domestic violence in their own country. Yet,
domestic and family violence is widespread in Australia.

I want to
bring to your attention just one of the many stories of domestic violence I have
learnt about, during my time as Sex Discrimination Commissioner. Some of you
may be familiar with this story, as it has been in the media recently and was
even the subject of an Australian Story episode last

Catherine Smith experienced more than three decades of violence
and abuse at the hands of her former husband.

As is so often the case,
the violence started out as an isolated incident. Catherine explained that she
was pregnant and “he just pushed me...sort of a bit of a punch in the back
and knocked me to the ground. I never told anyone because I didn’t want
anyone to think that there was a problem with my marriage.” As time went
by, however, the violence escalated.

Catherine sought assistance from
police on numerous occasions. Yet, at the time, her former husband was never

In the absence of meaningful assistance from local
authorities, Catherine attempted to take matters into her own hands. She fled
the family home and sought refuge for her and her children in domestic violence

However, Catherine’s former husband always found them.
Catherine’s daughter, Vickie, recalled how he would stalk local refuges to
find her mother. “He was obsessive. He had to find her. He had to have
her. He had to control her. He had to own her”, she

When he did find
them, he would force Catherine and their children to return home with him.
Catherine has explained that people often ask her why she didn’t leave and
why she kept going back. She tells them that “[i]t’s not a simple
thing when someone’s a control freak, a psychopath. He always found me
any time I got away, and it made it far

I am
pleased to be able to say that Catherine did eventually succeed in leaving her
former husband, but only once her adult children had left home. The violence
did not end there, however, with Catherine and her children remaining in fear
for their lives as they were stalked, threatened and, in the case of one son,
kidnapped at gun point.

Finally, in July this year – after more
than three decades of violence and abuse – Catherine’s former
husband was found guilty on 17 charges, including multiple counts of attempted
murder, rape and assault.

After the verdict was handed down, Catherine

It’s really hard to believe that I’m actually free. I
don’t have to run and hide anymore. There's so many things I’ve
wanted to do for so long and now I can finally do them. The first thing I want
to do is get rid of the cameras, open my curtains, get a dog – a little
pup. And I’d like to start painting again. And I’d love to get a
pottery wheel and put it on my back veranda and pot to my heart’s content.
To me it’s like the end of our sentence and the start of

And the good news is that she is taking her story to the international
stage when she accompanies me to the UN next year – her first ever trip
overseas after years of being confined to the terror of her home and the failure
of the system.

You might be thinking – as so many people I meet do
– that Catherine’s story is an isolated instance of domestic
violence, that this type of violence isn’t common in a country like ours.

But, in fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In 2005, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that 1.2 million
women over the age of 15 had experienced domestic or family violence, usually at
the hands of a male partner.[4]

Approximately one woman is killed every week by her current or former
partner,[5] often after a history of
domestic violence. In addition, VicHealth has identified domestic violence as
the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15-44

We also know that
women from different racial backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
women, migrant women and refugee women, as well as women with a disability are
at a significantly higher risk of domestic or family violence, compared to other
women in Australia.[7]

course, stories like Catherine’s are only one part of the picture of
domestic violence. Whilst the overwhelming majority of domestic violence in
Australia is perpetrated by men against women, domestic violence is not limited
to any one sex, sexual orientation or sex or gender identity. Research
suggests, for example, that domestic violence occurs at a similar rate in same
sex relationships as in heterosexual

victims and survivors also never report domestic violence.

When all of
this is taken into account, it becomes clear that domestic violence is even more
prevalent in Australia that official statistics first suggest.

In 2011, this situation is inexcusable and cannot be allowed to continue.

A business imperative

You might be wondering what all
this has to do with Australian business.

I’d like to suggest two
reasons why domestic and family violence are business imperatives.

The first reason is that a significant number of individuals
who experience domestic or family violence are in paid employment. What affects
employees affects employers.

The second reason is that
domestic violence is a significant cost to Australian business. Acknowledging
this and doing something about it can reduce this cost.

Let me talk a
little about the number of individuals who experience domestic violence and who
are in paid work.

It is often assumed that domestic and family violence
and the workplace are mutually exclusive; that one has nothing to do with the
other. It is thought that work is something that happens between the hours of
9am and 5pm, or thereabouts, and domestic and family violence occur outside
those hours – that a woman’s entry into one world signals her safety
in the other. Surely, we might say, a colleague or employee could not be
experiencing violence in her home without us realising it.

However, it is
a little known fact that almost two-thirds of women affected by domestic
violence in this country are in some form of paid

Based on
the ABS’s estimates, which I referred to earlier, this equates to around
800,000 women in the workforce, who are experiencing domestic violence.
That’s enough women to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground eight times over.

Something to think about the next time you’re watching an AFL game
or a cricket match.

Add to this figure the number of male victims
and survivors and the many individuals who do not report domestic violence, who
are also in paid employment.

That so many victims and survivors of
domestic violence are in paid employment means that it is misleading and in many
cases harmful to characterise domestic violence as a private or community issue

Domestic violence is also very much a concern for business; it is
not something that can be neatly compartmentalised into what happens during or
after the hours of 9 to 5.

Take a minute to think about how your
participation and performance in the workforce might be affected if you were a
victim or perpetrator of domestic violence, or even a friend, colleague or
manager of a victim or perpetrator.

Would you turn up to work if you had
a black eye or other visible bruising? What about if your abusive partner hid
your work clothes in an effort to stop you going to work, or promised to care
for your children but turned up drunk?

How would you explain to your
manager that you needed time off work to attend legal proceedings, move into a
domestic violence shelter, or see a doctor? What would you say if you had
already used up your leave allowance?

Would you tell your manager that
the recent drop in your attendance, performance and/or productivity is linked to
domestic or family violence or would you try to cover it up, explaining it away
with an excuse of some kind?

Consider the story of one survivor of
domestic violence, who explained:

I’ve had to take large amounts of sick leave and, when that ran out,
annual leave to deal with the effects of an abusive partner. I thought I was
going to lose my job. The fear of losing my job made dealing with the emotional
and legal issues even more stressful than it already was. Losing all my sick
leave and much of my annual leave further adds to the stress.

I’ve never told my employer the reason for my
“disappearances”, as I feared they might use it against me
(“allowing my personal life to interfere with job”). It would have
been a huge help if I could have been up-front about what was going on and also
to have known that my job was

Consider, also, the likelihood that a prospective employer would hire
someone with a disrupted work history, a common situation for women experiencing
domestic violence.

It is not just violence that occurs within the four
walls of the family home that affects the workplace.

Perpetrators of
domestic violence regularly use the workplace as a further means of exercising
power and control over their victims – often misusing their own
employers’ resources to pursue their abusive objectives and causing
disruption and trauma to colleagues.

One woman, Judy, explained how she
left her job at a fast-food restaurant because of her husband’s jealousy
and violence. “If a guy talked to me”, she said, “[my
husband] would rip doors off hinges.... I left because I didn’t think it
was fair to [my

Research from
the US has showed that 95% of women who are stalked by a violent partner,
experience harassment and disruption at their place of
work.[12] Regrettably, there are
many other studies that also report violence and harassment in the workplace at
the hands of current or former partners.

Once you begin to unravel
the varied ways that domestic violence affects the lives of victims and
survivors, including their work lives, it is difficult not to see domestic
violence as a concern for business.

Access to paid work enables survivors
to leave violent and abusive relationships and family situations. Indeed,
impoverishment or fear of impoverishment is one reason that victims and
survivors of domestic violence often stay in violent and abusive relationships
and family situations.

Employment can therefore play a tangible role in
assisting employees to transition out of domestic violence.

The second reason that domestic violence is a business imperative is that
recognising it as a business concern and putting in place appropriate policies
and processes can help to reduce the significant cost of domestic violence to
Australian business.

When I talk to business leaders about domestic
violence, I begin by appealing to the familiar notion that what affects
employees also affects employers, including their bottom line.

simply, domestic violence has a significant business cost, in addition to its
individual, family and community costs.

Access Economics estimated that
domestic violence cost Australian business $484 million in lost productivity
between 2002 and
2003.[13] In 2004, the Victorian Government put the cost of domestic violence to business
at more than $500 million per

The cost of
productivity losses are expected to rise to $609 million by 2021-2022, unless
effective action is taken to address domestic
violence.[15] It is estimated that
employers alone will bear 39% of these

These are
large numbers with significant implications for Australian business.

Costs associated with lost productivity are typically associated with
absenteeism, search and hiring costs, retraining costs, permanent loss of labour
capacity and, for example, lost productivity of victims, perpetrators,
management, co-workers, friends and

I think it is
worth emphasizing here that the cost of domestic violence to business derives
not only from the experiences of victims and survivors but also the experiences
of perpetrators and those people who are in contact with victims and

If businesses recognise domestic and family violence as
a workplace issue, if they take the time to understand how it affects their
employees as well as their bottom line and if they respond by putting in place
appropriate policies and processes, they can begin to reduce related costs.

But as Betty Taylor, a noted Australian expert on domestic violence,
says, “[b]usiness should address domestic violence not just because of the
bottom line, but because it will take all sectors of society to eliminate this
blight on our

leading the way

It is time to bring domestic violence out of the
shadows of the workplace – to name this problem as a workplace concern and
for business to play a leadership role on this issue, just as it has in so many
other areas.

Business has recognised that what occurs in the home can
have a profound impact on what happens in the workplace. This need is reinforced
by the fact that many of today’s workplaces can be found in the

In the time that I have left, I want to outline some of the
different ways businesses can be leaders in the campaign against domestic

There are many avenues available to business but, in the
interests of time, I will focus on just four:

  • identifying domestic violence as a workplace issue;
  • providing a supportive environment for victims and survivors of domestic
  • recognising and addressing abusive behaviour of employees; and
  • providing education and training on domestic violence.

(1) Identifying domestic violence as a workplace issue

Public recognition of domestic violence as a business issue is
critical. Once it has been named, it will then be easier to address the
workplace impacts.

Business has an important role to play in the
naming process. One of the most important things it can do is to acknowledge
publicly that domestic violence is a workplace issue.

domestic violence in this way would help to create an environment in which
employees feel they are able to talk about their experiences of domestic
violence and how it might be affecting their work, without fear of jeopardising
their job or financial security. It would also send a clear message to
employees that abusive and violent behaviour will not be tolerated in the
workplace. It would help create a language within business.

Providing a supportive environment

Another step business can take is
to ensure that they provide a supportive environment for employees experiencing
domestic violence, through their workplace policies and processes.

growing number of organisations, both in the public and the private sectors,
have developed policies and altered processes to support victims of domestic
violence and assist perpetrators to change their behaviour.

Some have
created workplace policies to support staff by offering flexible work, special
leave, the ability to change extension numbers, to leave a bag of belongings in
a safe place, the possibility of working in another office and, for example,
domestic violence support information through workplace training and induction.
Others have included an entitlement to domestic violence leave in their
enterprise agreements.

There are some good examples of organisations
taking steps to support employees experiencing domestic violence. In its
enterprise agreement, the University of New South Wales expressly acknowledges
that “both female and male employees sometimes experience situations of
violence or abuse in their personal life that may affect attendance or
performance at work.” It further acknowledges that University employees
experiencing domestic violence may need to access a broad range of support. To
this end, it makes provisions for access to certain types of leave, flexible
work arrangements and the ability to change one’s work location, telephone
number and email address.

Other organisations, such as the Australian
Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse and the Australian Services Union,
have developed resources to assist workplaces to introduce domestic violence
workplace entitlements in an informed and supportive

Recognising and addressing abusive behaviour

Violent behaviour
often spills over from the home into the workplace. Perpetrators of domestic
violence may also be aggressive and violent towards colleagues and display
bullying behaviour, though, certainly, this is not always the case.

Business can, therefore, play an important role in recognising abusive
behaviour in the workplace and facilitating behavioural change.

Instead of sweeping it under the carpet they are working to identify
appropriate programs and assisting people to attend those programs. Employers
are increasingly recognising that some of their employees need help to change
violent and abusive behaviour. I remember watching a Four Corners episode several years ago called “Changing
Men”.[20] The episode
followed three men over six months as they undertook a 28 week program to
address their violent and abusive behaviour.

For two of the men, the
event that triggered their inclusion in the program was not the fact that they
were violent at home and that their wives lived in fear, though they were
violent and their wives did live in fear. Rather, it was that their aggression
was spilling over into the workplace.

Their employers told these men
that if their abusive behaviour toward their co-workers did not change, they
would be fired.

The Four Corners episode shows the important role
business can play in identifying violent and abusive characteristics in
employees and supporting them to get help. Such leadership will not only have a
positive impact on the workplace but will also have likely flow on effects in
the home. In suggesting this I also acknowledge that domestic violence is a
crime and may also need to be addressed in the courts.

Providing education and training on domestic violence

Employers can
take a leadership role, educating themselves and their employees about domestic
violence – how it affects the workplace, how to support colleagues
experiencing such violence, how to address violent and abusive behaviours in the
workplace and how to respond to domestic violence effectively.

example, including personal safety information at the same time as the training
on occupational health and safety.

One company already making greats
inroads in this area is Australia’s CEO Challenge, which, as I said
earlier, is a Queensland-based organisation helping workplaces understand and
respond to domestic violence.


I’d like
to finish by recounting one final story told to me by the head of one of
Australia’s largest women’s organisations. It’s a story that
gives me great hope about the potential to create change in this space, through
education and training and supporting individuals to live their lives free from
all forms of violence, including domestic and family violence.

It is
the story of Ella.

Ella is a woman in her seventies, who had been living
in an abusive relationship for around 45 years.

One time, Ella’s
daughter and granddaughter came to stay with her. While they were there,
Ella’s husband returned home drunk. He walked into the kitchen and
– like he so frequently did – was violent toward Ella.

Ella’s 40 year old daughter hid, just like she had learned to do
as a child in order to be spared the same abuse. Ella’s teenage
granddaughter, however, was watching from the next room and, having just
completed a Respectful Relationships program at school, decided to do something

Once the violence stopped, Ella’s granddaughter went up
to her and said: “It doesn’t have to be like this, Grandma”.
The next day, she arranged for Ella to seek assistance at the local domestic
violence counselling service.

The Respectful Relationships program that
Ella’s granddaughter completed enabled her to offer Ella a way out of an
abusive relationship. Education and training that identifies domestic violence
as a workplace issue and equips workplaces to respond effectively can offer
similar support and pathways out of violent relationships and family

We need to find a language then, in which to speak about
domestic violence – as employers and employees. How will we do

I had a call last week from Margot, a talented woman I have
mentored for many years, who attended my Fairfax oration in Sydney last month.
She said that following my speech she called her staff together; she has
responsibility for many staff being a senior manager for a large

She told her staff that she wanted to talk about domestic violence,
the prevalence data and what it means for business. She started by recounting
her own story – a story she’d never told before. The story of
growing up in a violent household, of wiping the blood off her mother’s
face, or taking her to hospital – of the shame and silence. She concluded
by saying to her staff “now I ask you to tell everybody in the bank my
story and maybe that way I can make it easier for others to tell

My invitation to you is – what action can you take,
no matter how small or big that can move us to a world where dignity and respect
lie at the core, a world where violence has no place.

Just like
Ella’s granddaughter, we can give dignity back and tell the truth kindly.
My quest is to realise a peaceful world, one where your children and mine can
thrive irrespective of gender. Will you join me?

Thank you.

[1] Vickie Smith, “The
Courage of Her Convictions”, Australian Story, 19 September 2011
(transcript). At: (viewed 12 October 2011).
[2] Catherine Smith, above.
[3] Above.
[4] See Australian Bureau of
Statistics, Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue),
Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), p 10; Australian Bureau of
Statistics, Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue),
Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), unpublished.
[5] Jenny Mouzos and Catherine
Rushforth, Family Homicide in Australia, Canberra, Australian Institute
of Criminology, No. 255 (2003), p. 2.
[6] VicHealth, The Health Costs
of Violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence
(2004), p 8.
[7] See National Plan to Reduce
Violence against Women and Their Children
(2011), p. 2; Chris Cunneen,
Preventing Violence against Indigenous Women through Programs Which
Target Men,”
(2002) 25(1) University of New South Wales Law
242, at 242 (Forum 8 No 1); Women with Disabilities Australia, It’s Not OK: It’s violence (2001), p. 30.
[8] See generally William Leonard et al., Coming Forward: The Underreporting of Heterosexist Violence
and Same Sex Partner Abuse in Victoria
(2008); Janine Farrell and Somali
Cerise, Fair’s Fair: A Snapshot of Violence and Abuse in Sydney LGBT
Relationships 2006
(2006); Marian Pitts et al., Private Lives: A
Report on Health and Wellbeing of GLBTI Australians
(2006), pp 51-52.
[9] Australian Bureau of
Statistics, Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Cat. No. 4906.0,
35. At: (viewed 12 October 2011).
[10] Anonymous survivor of family
violence, cited in Australian Services Union, Family Violence is a Workplace
(2011), p. 13
[11] Ruth A. Brandwein and Diana
M. Filiano, “Toward Real Welfare Reform: The Voices of Battered
Women,” (2000) 15 Affilia 224, at 233.
[12] See TK Logan et al.,
“Partner Stalking and Implications for Women’s Employment”
(2007) 22(3) Journal of Interpersonal Violence 268, at 274.
[13] See National Council to
Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, The Cost of Violence
Against Women and Their Children
(2009), p. 45, citing Access Economics, The Cost of Domestic Violence to the Australian Economy: Part I and
Access Economics, The Cost of Domestic Violence to the Australian Economy:
Part I
(2004). At: (viewed 12 October 2010), p. 43.
[14] See State Government of
Victoria, Department of Human Services and VicHealth, The Health Costs of
Violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner
, A summary of findings (2004), p 12.
[15] See National Council to
Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, The Cost of Violence
Against Women and Their Children
(2009), p. 45.
[16] Above, at p. 46.
[17] Above, at p. 21.
[18] Cited in Ben Pennings,
“Domestic Violence: A workplace issue” in Australian Domestic &
Family Violence Clearinghouse (2008) 31 Newsletter 1 at 14.
[19] Australian Domestic &
Family Violence Clearinghouse, Domestic Violence Workplace Rights and
Entitlements Project, Domestic Violence and the Workplace: Employee, employer
and union resources
(2011). At (viewed 12/10/11); Australian Services Union, Family Violence is a Workplace
(2011). At: (viewed 12/10/11).
[20] Changing Men, Four
, Reporter Janine Cohen, Broadcast 25/02/2008. At: