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Sexual Harassment - Safer Workplaces

Commission – General

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins delivered the keynote address at the Women in Film and TV NSW - Safer Workplaces Strategies forum.

Good morning everyone. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which you meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and paying my respects to their elders past and present.

I also pay my respects to the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, as it is their land that I present to you from.

I am very pleased to be here to speak to you all today, and thank Women in Film and TV NSW for inviting me to be here. I also acknowledge my colleague Camilla Gebecki, who is leading our sexual harassment survey and is in the room today.

I feel it is very fitting for me to be presenting to a Film and TV audience from a big screen, so thanks for allowing me to do so.

It is very timely to be having this conversation. I of course can’t begin this speech, especially with this particular audience, without referring to the recent avalanche of allegations of workplace sexual harassment in the United States, and the #metoo movement, both of which have also reached us in Australia.

From the women I have spoken to – family, friends and colleagues – 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 women.

However, I also think that this point in time gives us some reasons to hope. While it is confronting to come to terms with these ugly realities about our society, this has been a long time coming and it does feel like something of a turning point. 

There are 3 reasons why I think the current momentum to call out and condemn harassment and sexual misconduct is helpful for change:

  1. It informs more people of the true prevalence of sexual harassment in our workplaces and communities.
  2. It educates more people about the harm and cost of sexual harassment.
  3. It highlights the silence surrounding sexual harassment.

Too many people have not understood these aspects of sexual harassment which has left us in a community that tolerates unacceptable treatment of too many.

It is my hope that this recent shining of light on sexual harassment signifies the beginning of the end of a culture which both permits these behaviours to occur and prevents victims from speaking out.

To any women or men in this room who have experienced sexual harassment, I would like to acknowledge your experiences. As Sex Discrimination Commissioner I am determined to use my platform to advocate for change, in the hope that we can prevent these behaviours from occurring in the future.

Prevalence of sexual harassment in Australia

Sexual harassment is not a historic phenomenon nor simply a US problem. I want to now give you a sense of the current prevalence rates of sexual harassment in Australia.

Despite some high profile abusers using the argument that ‘times have changed’ in relation to sexual harassment – Harvey Weinstein for example spoke of culture and rules in the workplace having changed since he ‘came of age’ in the 60’s and 70’s – in Australia at least, sexual harassment has been recognised as unlawful for more than 30 years.

The Sex Discrimination Act prohibits ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature’ in a number of areas of life, including in the workplace.

Under the Act, individuals who are sexually harassed can make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission which is then investigated and, if possible, conciliated between the parties. Individuals and organisations can also call the Commission’s National Information Service to learn more about their rights and responsibilities. We received around 15,000 calls a year.

In the last year, the Commission received close to 250 complaints of sexual harassment. Although the majority of complaints we receive are conciliated successfully, we know that these 250 complaints are barely the tip of the iceberg.

We also know that, despite recent allegations being focussed on high profile industries such as politics, entertainment and media, sexual harassment occurs across all industries.

In 2012, a survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission into workplace sexual harassment indicated that:

  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men had been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past 5 years
  • Nearly four out of five (79%) harassers were men.  Ninety per cent (90%) of women were harassed by a man and 61% of men said they were harassed by a man.

Supporting our findings about the widespread nature of sexual harassment, the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey conducted earlier this year found that:

  • One in two women and one in four men had experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime (in any context, including work).
  • In the last 12 months, one in six women and one in eleven men experienced sexual harassment.

The Commission will be conducting our fourth National Workplace Sexual Harassment survey in 2018, which is timely, although I doubt we will see improvement on these statistics as early as next year.

Work conducted within the Australian Defence Forces, Victoria Police, Surgeons and our universities has highlighted the issue of sexual harassment and the treatment of women within these organisations.

More work needs to be done to identify the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in other industries, including media and entertainment.

Harm of sexual harassment

Most devastating are the personal stories of sexual harassment. Since beginning of my term as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, many women have told me about their experiences:

  • A woman on a working visa she said did not report sexual harassment because her employer threatened to report breaches of her visa restrictions to the authorities.
  • Another young woman told me she was asked to wear a bikini while fruit picking so she could get paid a bonus.
  • A woman who had emigrated to Australia from overseas was working as a cleaner in a hospital. She told me that she regularly experienced sexual harassment from doctors and patients at the hospital. On one occasion, a patient called her into his room, where he sat naked. When she complained, her colleagues, including her manager, assumed that she was in a relationship with the patient. On another occasion, a co-worker’s husband attempted to sexually assault her. After eight years of employment at the hospital, the woman decided to resign from her job.
  • Women in Victoria Police described the everyday nature of sexual harassment, of being slapped on the bottom, unwanted hugging, asked about their sexual activity, lewd remarks, receiving texts and calls of a personal nature. One described it as a “continuum of compromise”: the sexual harassment was so normalised you lost a sense of when you should object.

To be generous, we could accept that until now many people have believed sexual harassment is something that can be tolerated, is not serious, does not cause harm to anyone and should be brushed aside.

But we now know better.

This conduct is not just unpleasant: it has direct impact on the health and well being of the individuals involved and it affects their ability to perform their jobs to the best of their ability.

Further, the misuse of power means that their career can be actively stalled by harassers who are the same people making decisions about their career opportunities. You don’t need to be Harvey Weinstein to slow someone’s career, you just need to be a manager.

Because of the gendered nature of sexual harassment, it is directly undermining any efforts by employers to advance women into leadership and improve gender equality, and for that reason alone employers should be much more active in its prevention.

Drivers of sexual harassment

We have learnt that many of the high profile people who have been exposed for sexual harassment were known to be sleezy. So why has sexual harassment been tolerated for so long? As someone who has been involved with sexual harassment litigation for more than 20 years, I put it down to attitudinal and systemic failures.

A key part of preventing sexual harassment is greater awareness of what drives it. Research has shown that gender inequality and community attitudes about women and their role in society contribute significantly to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence against women.

Gender inequality is the result of the unequal power distribution between men and women, and is reinforced by gender discrimination and structures that perpetuate inequality.

We see this in the underrepresentation of women in leadership and in decision-making roles in Australia, with just 11 female CEOs in the ASX 200. And in the fact that the average full-time weekly wage for a woman is 15.3% less than a man’s and that women do 1.8 times as much housework and two and half times more child care than men.

In terms of attitudes towards women, a national survey on Australians’ attitudes in 2013 found that:

  • 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.

Attitudes which justify, excuse, trivialise, minimise and shift the blame for sexual harassment are called “violence supportive” attitudes. While individuals may not themselves engage in violence or sexual harassment, these attitudes contribute to its prevalence. These attitudes have been common place in the reasons why bystanders have not called out sexual harassment.

  • Justifying and excusing harassment as inevitable because men cannot control their sexual urges.
  • Trivialising and minimising conduct, saying it was just meant as a joke, good natured banter, “a compliment”.
  • Shifting some of the blame for sexual harassment to the victim -  based on what she wore; what she drank; where she was; whether she objected.

Complaints of sexual harassment

I have already mentioned that we have had sexual harassment laws in place since the 80s. Employers have been expected to take reasonable precautions to prevent sexual harassment since then. Over time, employers have established policies, conducted training and set up complaints procedures. In practice, this system relies on the bravery of an individual victim to enforce the laws, and this system can never be expected to bring about systemic change. 

Our 2012 workplace sexual harassment survey told us that:

  • Only one in five people who had been 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, or that it would be easier to keep quiet.
  • 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.

So it is understandable that victims have overtime preferred not to make complaints, in fear of the personal price of doing so.

But it’s not just been victims who have remained silent.

  • Perpetrators engage in sexual harassment when no witnesses are around, denying the conduct when accused.
  • Too many bystanders and leaders have tolerated or ignored sexual harassment when they have seen it.
  • And organisations have quietly settled the few claims they have received, concealing the prevalence from managers and staff.

Now the silence is broken which makes me very optimistic for change.

Prevention of sexual harassment

So what can workplaces do to address this issue?

Firstly – by promoting gender equality within their organisation. We need to see more women in leadership roles across all industries. This year, Australia Post has completely eliminated the gender pay gap. Westpac has achieved a gender balanced leadership team.

Secondly, there needs to be an organisational culture within the workplace of zero tolerance for sexual harassment. This must be promoted at all levels of leadership.

In my experience, it is rarely ‘one bad apple’ within a workplace causing these issues – it is a broader, systemic tolerance of sexual harassment. We have seen in the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Don Burke, among others, that they were surrounded by people who were aware of their behaviour and did nothing, allowing it to continue for decades.

Thirdly, employers must develop and implement a sexual harassment policy. This includes ensuring that staff are aware of the policy, and know where to go to report incidents when they occur. And when they do complain, victims must be protected from victimisation.

In so many cases, people have told me they did not report their experience because they simply did not know where to go.

In addition to being accessible, complaints processes should be confidential, transparent, fair and timely.

As I said at the start of this speech, I think that the #metoo movement gives us reason to be hopeful. Indeed Time Magazine has remarkably recognised it as “Person of the Year” for 2017.

By giving a voice to victims, I think 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 workplaces.

I also think that this shift is engaging more people in changing the culture to prevent sexual harassment.

Finally, I think we are seeing a greater commitment to advancing gender equality, among both men and women. It is becoming clearer to everyone that we still have a long way to go – only last week Andrew Bolt issued an apology to women, acknowledging that more women in leadership roles is what we sorely need – I wholeheartedly agree.

Thank you very much for your time this morning, it has been great to speak to you all and I hope you have a productive day of discussions.

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner