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Leaving no one behind: delivering justice for all survivors of sexual harassment

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

UN Women High Level Virtual event (Live Webinar)
March 19, 2020
Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner

“Thank you … for giving many of us a voice during this inquiry, and I hope that those of us who have spoken out can find comfort in knowing that no matter how small or large your contribution ... this inquiry will bring [change] and by speaking out others will be encouraged to also.”

That quote comes from one of the 460 written submissions made to our Australian Inquiry into Workplace Sexual Harassment.

I am pleased to be able to participate in this virtual event and for the opportunities created through sharing global experiences of issues affecting women. I thank Purna Sen and UN Women for hosting us.

As we do in Australia, I will start by acknowledging the traditional owners of my home in Melbourne - the Wurundjeri and the Boonwurrung people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders - past, present and emerging.

My role as Sex Discrimination Commissioner was established under the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, after Australia was one of the first countries to sign the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). My role is to protect the human rights of women and girls, address sex discrimination and advance gender equality.

Over the last 18 months I have been supported by our government, business, unions, workers and the community to undertake a world-first national inquiry, with the objective of seeking solutions to the high prevalence of sexual harassment at work. The highly publicised reporting on the Weinstein allegations and the global #MeToo conversations that followed created momentum for our inquiry, which was conducted under our unique powers as an independent National Human Rights Institution.

Our Inquiry report - called Respect@Work - was tabled by our Attorney General in the Australian Parliament on the 5th of March, and jointly launched with me by the Minister for Women, Senator the Honourable Marise Payne, the following day.

The report is the culmination of our 18-month investigation which included a national survey of more than 10,000 Australian workers, more than 60 consultations, 460 written submissions and global research. The report is published on our website – - and you can also find it pinned to my Twitter feed if you are interested.

Australia was the first country to explicitly make sexual harassment unlawful in legislation in 1984. Yet, our survey told us that in 2018, one in three Australian workers had been sexually harassed in the last 5 years, up from one in five in 2012. Workers under 30 years of age are at the highest risk of sexual harassment. Our inquiry identified the intersectional vulnerabilities facing some workers, including workers from the LGBTIQ community, people with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island workers, migrant workers and rural workers.

While there have been significant sexual harassment cases pursued over the last 35 years, the Australian experience has been that the process is long, damages awards are low, coverage is limited and the legal system and media reporting is brutal on victims.

Overwhelming, the Commission heard that the current system for addressing workplace sexual harassment in Australia is complex and confusing for victims and employers to understand and navigate. It does not apply easily to how work is performed today. It also places a heavy burden on victims to make a complaint.

Most people who experience sexual harassment never report it: only 17% reported their experience and of those who did, 43% reported experiencing negative consequences as a result. We heard that workers feared the impact that complaining would have on their reputation, job prospects, health and their relationships.

Throughout the inquiry we heard of the need to shift from the current reactive, complaints-based approach, to one that requires positive actions from employers and a focus on prevention.
Through our 55 recommendations we have proposed a new approach for government, employers and the community to better prevent and respond to sexual harassment.

I fear however that we are still a long way from delivering justice for survivors, and I do think that an essential pre-condition is the advancement of gender equality. Our inquiry found that while both men and women face sexual harassment, gender inequality is the key power disparity that drives sexual harassment.

We made a range of recommendations aimed towards delivering justice to all survivors, including:
• More options and more time for workers to raise complaints to employers or through the legal system.
• Workplace responses that are victim-centred and prioritise the safety and well-being of the victim.
• Better guidance for employers and support for disciplinary action and dismissal in cases of sexual harassment.
• Research on damages quantum awarded to ensure it better reflects contemporary understandings of the nature, drivers, harms and impacts of sexual harassment.
• Guidance on best practice non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and guidance for media outlets on safe, responsible, best practice reporting of sexual harassment.
• Better services and easier access for victims to information about rights and support.
Sima came to one of our consultations and took the courage to tell her experience. After tears and several false starts she described the impact on her mental health and financial wellbeing of both being harassed and then being let down by her employer and the system when she made a complaint. She shared her story and then stayed for the next consultation.

Afterwards I spoke to Sima. She said that this was the first time she had told what had happened to her, and had just been believed. She told me that she felt empowered by telling her story and hoped it might help make sure it doesn’t happen to others.

Many people who participated in our inquiry told us they felt the same way.

That is why one of my most important recommendations is for the establishment of a disclosure process that enables victims of historical workplace sexual harassment to have their experience heard and documented, with a view to promoting recovery.

Like Sima, I too hope that the experiences shared with us will lead to change - both within Australia and across the world.
Thank you.

Kate Jenkins

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Discrimination Sex Discrimination