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Sex Discrimination Commissioner delivers 2018 Pamela Denoon Lecture

Sex Discrimination

2018 Pamela Denoon Lecture, ANU
Monday 5th March 2018

Good evening.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and paying my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

I would also like to acknowledge both the organisers of this event and the women who have presented the Pamela Denoon lecture in the past.

And of course, I would like to acknowledge and celebrate the life of Pamela Denoon, in whose memory we are here this evening. Pamela was a strong, passionate and committed feminist whose dedication to women’s rights in this country can be seen in the achievements that she fought for, such as the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act and Australia’s ratification of the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW).

It is an honour to be here to speak to you all tonight so close to the 2018 International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day has been observed for over 100 years. It was established at the time of the women’s suffrage movement and in the decades since, we have seen so many positive changes in the position and treatment of women in our society.

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate these achievements, but also to reflect on the challenges still to be overcome.

This year, perhaps more than ever, I think there is a feeling that we still have a long way to go, and that these challenges may be more numerous than many of us had previously believed.

I am referring to the recent avalanche of allegations of sexual harassment in Hollywood and elsewhere, known as the #metoo movement.

In less than six months, catalysed by allegations of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, we have seen a light shone on these behaviours and prominent abusers exposed all around the world.

From the women I have spoken to it is my sense that for many of us, these allegations are not particularly shocking. They are saddening in that they confirm the shared experience of far too many individuals, who have been silenced by power for too long.

Others have told me that this conversation has come out of nowhere for them.

It is clear to me that one of the most important impacts of the #metoo movement has been to provide people all around the world with a greater understanding of the scale of sexual harassment and of the harm it causes.

In doing this, the #metoo movement has created appetite for change. 

So where do we go from here?

It would be easy to get bogged down under the weight of this problem.

However, I strongly believe that this recent shining of light on sexual harassment and abuse should give us reasons to hope that change is possible.

It is my role as Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner to protect the rights of women and girls, and to advocate for gender equality for all Australians.

The change we need is to create a society where this kind of conduct is unthinkable, and where sexual harassment at work is not something women simply have to put up with.

My aim over the next half hour is to answer three key questions about sexual harassment:

• What do we know about sexual harassment today?

• Why has it continued at such a high rate?

• And what we can do to eliminate it?

What do we know about sexual harassment today?

The reality is that the evidence has shown us for a long time now that sexual harassment and sexual assault occur far too frequently in Australian workplaces and society more broadly.

Late last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the results of the 2016 Personal Safety Survey.

The data showed that while the proportion of Australians experiencing physical violence had declined significantly between 2005 and 2016, in the same period, the proportion of women who experience sexual violence has not reduced at all.

In fact, sexual violence against women increased between 2012 and 2016.

The survey also showed that women were more than twice as likely as men to have experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime.

Young women were most at risk, with 38% of women aged 18-24 having experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months.

Australian Human Rights Commission’s workplace sexual harassment surveys

The Australian Human Rights Commission has, for the past 15 years, conducted five yearly surveys on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The fourth iteration of this survey will be conducted this year, providing a fourth wave of comparative data. It will also, for the first time, provide data on the prevalence of harassment within major industry sectors.

The 2012 survey results indicated that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men had been sexually harassed in the workplace in the previous 5 years.

Most harassment was perpetrated by men. Ninety per cent of women and 61% of men said that they were harassed by a man.

These figures make it clear that this problem is not confined to Hollywood or the entertainment industry.

A Conversation in Gender Equality (2016)

Since beginning my term as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, many women have shared with me their heartbreaking stories of workplace sexual harassment.

- A woman on a working visa told me she did not report sexual harassment because her employer threatened to report breaches of her visa restrictions to the authorities.

- Another young woman was told by her employer she should wear a bikini while fruit picking if she wanted to get paid a bonus.

- And a woman who worked as a cleaner in a hospital was sexually harassed by a patient who exposed himself to her. She said that when she reported this, her colleagues assumed that she was in a sexual relationship with the patient.

Change the course: National report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities

Last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission released Change the course, a national report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities.

This report was based on the results of a National university student survey conducted in late 2016.

The survey examined the prevalence, nature and reporting of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australia’s 39 universities, and was completed by more than 30,000 students, making it the largest survey of its kind in Australia.

The report also includes case studies and quotes from more than 1800 written submissions we received. This was the greatest number of submissions ever received by the Commission in relation to a single piece of work, demonstrating the magnitude of this issue.

Our survey found that one in five students was sexually harassed at university in 2016.

1.6% of students were sexually assaulted in a university setting in 2015 or 2016.

Women were twice as likely as men to be sexually harassed at university and three times as likely to be sexually assaulted.

We heard stories of students being harassed and assaulted in residential colleges, at social events, on public transport to or from university and in lectures and tutorials.

A large number of students who were sexually harassed or sexually assaulted at university in 2015 or 2016 said that the perpetrator was a fellow student. 

This was also something recounted to us in submissions. We received numerous accounts of women being sexually assaulted by people they described as ‘close friends’, who they trusted.

The impacts of being assaulted by a friend from university were often severe. People described feeling anxious about being on campus because they were afraid of seeing the perpetrator. It is heartbreaking to imagine developing that fear in your first week at university.

In some cases, this fear was so great that students dropped out of university all together.

While most perpetrators were fellow students, we also heard of the devastating breach of trust when students were harassed by teachers or staff. This was most likely to happen to postgraduate students.

Why has sexual harassment continued at such a high rate?

Australia has had progressive sexual harassment laws since the 1980s thanks, in large part, to the advocacy of women like Pamela Denoon.

The Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1984 and prohibits sex discrimination and sexual harassment in a range of areas of public life, including employment, education and in the provision of goods and services.

Notwithstanding the existence of this legislation, we have not been able to prevent sexual harassment in this country.

Understanding the continued, high rates of sexual harassment in Australia, the next question is: how have these behaviours been allowed to continue at such a high rate?

Attitudes and norms that contribute to sexual harassment

I’m often told that change takes time and that this problem will be solved by generational change. Recent work to examine young people’s attitudes and behaviours has shown that assumption to be false.

The Commission’s Change the course report, as well as highlighting the high prevalence of these behaviours among young Australians, illustrated how commonly held beliefs about gender roles, relationships and sex contribute to women’s experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

We heard of a culture where women are often perceived as being less intelligent than men, where women are objectified, where men feel they are entitled to receive sex from women and where sexual harassment and sexual assault are seen as a ‘normal’ part of the university experience.

People who reported sexual harassment were often blamed for what happened to them or simply not believed.

In Australian society more broadly, these views are also prevalent.

Late last year, violence prevention organisation Our Watch published the results of The Line – a survey which measures young people’s attitudes towards gender and relationships.

The results show that problematic attitudes and beliefs are far too common among 12 to 20 year olds in Australia.

For example:

• 1 in 5 young people still believe that it is normal for young men to put pressure on young women to do sexual things.

• More than a third of young people think it is hard to be respectful of a woman when she is drunk.

• And 15 percent of young people believe that if a female wears revealing clothing, she is at least partly responsible for unwanted sex.

VicHealth and ANROWS, Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, conduct a regular survey on community attitudes towards violence against women. The next iteration of this survey will be released later this year.
In 2013:

• More than 1 in 4 people thought that men make better political leaders than women.

• Almost 1 in 5 people thought that men should take control in relationships and be the head of the household.

• And more than 1 in ten people thought that women who are sexually harassed should sort it out themselves.

Research has shown that community attitudes about women and their role in society contribute significantly to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence against women.

These attitudes can serve to:

• Justify and excuse harassment as inevitable, because men cannot control their sexual urges.

• Trivialise and minimise conduct, saying it was just meant as a joke, good-natured banter or a compliment.

• And shift some of the blame for sexual harassment or assault to the victim - based on what she wore; what she drank; where she was; whether she objected.

We cannot rely on attitudes towards sexual assault and sexual harassment to change by themselves, and until we take action to change them, it is clear that this problem is here to stay.

Silencing of victims

Another key part of the problem has been the historical silencing of victims of sexual harassment.

The recent high profile stories of abuse have emphasised the importance of victims of sexual harassment and assault being able to come forward, tell their stories and be believed.

However, they have also highlighted the ways that harassers abuse their positions of power in order to sexually harass and assault their victims, and silence them by threatening their careers if they resist or speak out.

They highlight the impossible position that people who are sexually harassed at work are put in, afraid that speaking out will result in them being sacked or victimised even further, which can have disastrous economic consequences.

We learned from Change the course that only 2% of people who were sexually harassed and 9% of those who were sexually assaulted at university made a formal report or complaint to their university.

We heard from students about the barriers they faced when they did report being sexually assaulted or sexually harassed.

Many students said they felt ashamed or blamed themselves for what had happened, emotions which may inhibit some people from coming forward.

Even if they were able to tell someone or make a report, sometimes the person they told reinforced these feelings of shame and guilt.

One woman reported her sexual assault to her college only to be asked about her drinking habits and what she would do in future to make sure this didn’t happen again.

Another woman who experienced ongoing sexual harassment by a fellow student reported the behaviour to her supervisor, who told her to take it as a compliment.

The low rates of reporting sexual harassment and assault at university are dispiriting, but perhaps unsurprising given the low rates of reporting of these behaviours in the Australian community more broadly.

Our 2012 workplace sexual harassment survey found that just one in five people who were sexually harassed at work formally reported their experience.

Common reasons for not reporting were that they thought it was not serious enough, that the perpetrator was too senior, that it would damage their reputation or that it would be easier to keep quiet.

And sadly, nearly one third of people who did make a formal complaint about sexual harassment in the workplace said that they suffered negative consequences as a result, such as being labelled a trouble maker, being ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues.

Prevention and responses to sexual harassment

We require response systems that allow people to raise concerns, that provide support and avoid causing further harm, that don’t get bogged down in complex legal processes at the expense of the welfare of the complainant, that provide a confidential, prompt and fair process for everyone involved.

However, I also think that we need to stop assuming that reporting processes and legal systems will solve this problem.

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been unlawful in Australia for more than 30 years, yet still we are not seeing an improvement in the prevalence of harassment.

We need to see more action taken to prevent these behaviours from occurring in the first place, as well as on improving responses when they do occur.

A focus on reporting, rather than preventing, these behaviours lays the responsibility of eliminating sexual harassment at the feet of victims who, for many reasons, struggle to come forward and when they do, often find themselves more bruised by the process than the sexual harassment itself.

Sexual harassment is not inevitable. It is unacceptable and it is preventable.

Encouragingly, I do think that with the #metoo movement we have begun to see a shift in how these behaviours are talked about.

Media reporting of these incidents has a huge impact on community attitudes.

Where, historically, there has been a propensity for reporting to blame the victim and excuse the perpetrator, recent reports have focussed on victims’ stories and I think that, broadly, the public response has been to believe victims and to hold perpetrators to account.

Time Magazine named the ‘silence breakers’ who spoke out publicly about sexual assault and sexual harassment as their 2017 Person of the Year.

And while some high profile abusers have tried to excuse or dismiss reports of their behaviours – Harvey Weinstein, for example, spoke of culture and rules about appropriate workplace behaviours having shifted since he ‘came of age’ in the 60’s and 70’s – it is my sense that the general public are becoming far less willing to accept these excuses.

I think that all of this emphasises why the #metoo movement is so significant – as well as allowing victims to finally be heard, it is beginning to drive the change in attitudes which is so desperately needed.

What can we do to eliminate sexual harassment?

So how do we ensure that we capitalise on this momentum, build on the Australian experience in sexual harassment and change the culture of workplaces and other institutions?

While implementation by Universities has only just begun, Change the course provides a roadmap of some of the initiatives required to address the problem of sexual harassment in our universities and workplaces.

There are broadly five areas of action;

1. Understand the evidence
2. Visible leadership
3. Better engagement – especially on gender equity
4. Improved responses
5. Monitoring and evaluation

Understand the evidence

Change the course is built on comprehensive and independent evidence of the nature of the problem at universities. Recommendation 9 of the report demands the same kind of rigorous research be undertaken at residential colleges.

In recent years, the Australian Defence Force, police and emergency services, Royal College of Surgeons, the legal profession and universities have undergone reviews to examine the treatment of women and the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment and assault within their institutions.

While it can be confronting to face these sometimes ugly realities about our culture, having an understanding of the scale and nature of the issues is critical to implementing targeted, evidence-based solutions that address the problem.

It also provides people with an understanding of the devastating impact these behaviours can have on individuals’ lives as well as workplace productivity.

Visible leadership

Commitment from leadership is another key part of this process.

Policies to deal with harassment are essential, but we know that leaders set the example for their organisations, and often for the community more broadly. What they say, how they act and what they prioritise determines what gets done, and what doesn’t. Cultural change requires them to take action to set the tone about what is and isn’t acceptable.

Leadership is required not only to prevent sexual harassment but also to advance gender equality.

Given the gendered nature of sexual harassment, gender equality will shift the power imbalance which is often a factor in workplace sexual harassment.

Gender equality involves more women in leadership, equal pay, gender-balanced workforces, eliminiating everyday sexism and meaningful recognition of caring responsibilities.

Better engagement across the organisation to change attitudes and behaviours

There also needs to be engagement with these issues at all levels of organisations. It is my observation that often, sexual harassment is seen as the responsibility of the Human Resources department, who write policy, administer training and manage complaints, and is treated as a “tick a box” compliance issue by others.

It is also the case that bystanders who witness sexual harassment often do nothing in response. At universities, 25% of students witnessed another student being sexually harassed in 2016, yet only one in five of these took any action in response. 

I think we need to better communicate that everyone has a role to play in overcoming these behaviours.

Improved responses to sexual assault and sexual harassment.

We also, of course, need robust policies and processes in place to respond to these incidents, and a commitment to upholding these, including providing access to specialist support.

Most large organisations and institutions do now have these processes in place, however many have failed to adhere to these transparently, or at all.

A shift in community attitudes – respectful attitudes to women, taking victims seriously, not trivialising behaviours or shifting blame, understanding that everyone has a role to play – will result in policies and complaints processes being followed more rigorously than they have been to date.

Taking steps to prevent sexual harassment within workplaces and universities has the potential to effect change in Australian society more broadly.

Monitoring and evaluation of measures taken to ensure that they are evidence-based and that improvements are made over time.

The findings of the Change the course report and recommendations are just the first step in addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment in universities. Progress must be monitored, evaluated and refined over time.

Late last year, the Commission conducted an audit of all 39 universities’ responses to the recommendations made in change the course.

Encouragingly, all universities have accepted the majority of the Commission’s recommendations, with 32 of the 39 universities have explicitly accepting all recommendations made, and many initiatives commenced.

It is important that universities maintain momentum for this work and that they are transparent about their progress. This same monitoring and evaluation of progress will be important for workplaces as well going forward.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day – Press for Progress – is about continuing the momentum gained in 2017 by movements like #metoo, and recognising that we all have a role to play in achieving positive change.

It would be devastating if, in 20 years’ time, as we celebrate 50 years of the Sex Discrimination Act in Australia, we are still having these same conversations about harassment and abuse.

It is my hope that #metoo marks the beginning of the end of a global culture which both permits sexual harassment to occur and prevents victims from speaking out.

While it should never have been necessary for them to do so, the women and men who have spoken out publicly about these behaviours have shown incredible courage and strength, and should be commended for their contribution. 

They are owed action on these issues.

Over the next year, having called out sexual harassment, we must press forward with the progress made on gender equality and the treatment of women in our society.

We need to create change at all levels and areas of our society to end the harm caused by sexual harassment and sexual assault.

As the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I am committed to fighting gender inequality and the drivers of gender violence. I am working with leaders in media, sporting codes, universities and our defence forces to change the organisational cultures that allow sexual harassment and sexual assault to occur.

I believe we are seeing a greater commitment to advancing gender equality, among both women and men.

By giving a voice to victims, we are seeing people gain a much better understanding of what sexual harassment is, how commonly it occurs, and of the damage it can do to victims and the institutions they are a part of.

By learning from the work already done in Australia, gathering data, engaging leaders and the workforce, changing attitudes, improving responses, advancing gender equality and holding ourselves to account, I am confident we can accelerate change.

Finally, it is becoming clearer to everyone that we still have a long way to go and that we must all drive the changes that we wish to see in our society.

This in itself is a huge step forward, and should give us all reason to believe that change is not only possible, it is closer than it has ever been.

Thank you.

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner