A Bad Business
(Review of sexual harassment in employment complaints 2002)
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Media Pack Index | Media
Release | Launch Speech by Pru Goward | Speech by Nareen Young | Case Studies
Fact Sheets: Key Findings | The Complaints Process | Legal
Definition of Sexual Harassment | Cost
Address to the Launch of A Bad
Delivered by Nareen Young, Director
– NSW Working Women’s Centre
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru
Goward, ladies and gentlemen.
I feel greatly honoured to have been
asked to speak to the launch of A Bad Business,
HREOC's review of sexual harassment in employment complaints 2002.
The NSW Working Women's Centre is very proud of our close working
relationship with HREOC, the Sex Discrimination Unit in particular.
We have devloped a great respect for both the quantity and quality
of the Unit's output, and are grateful for the support that the Unit,
and specifically Pru has provided to our service.
I might add that our close working
relationship has also enabled me to observe the skill and energy with
which Pru has demonstrated her commitment to working women, and to
their human rights in employment.
A Bad for Business is yet another example of the way in which the Sex Discrimination
Unit is strategically highlighting the key concerns of women at work.
It confirms something that we at the
Working Women's Centre have suspected for some time - because of what
our clients are telling us about their experiences of sexual harassment
that it's still going on despite
the existence for almost 20 years of legislative provisions making
it unlawful in Australia
that it seems to be on the rise
that women are generally the targets
of harassment, and it is men who are the principal perpetrators
that many incidents go unreported
that many businesses still don't
have a sexual harassment policy or procedure
that where there is a policy,
it's not always implemented, or isn't implemented properly
that many women who do report sexual harassment
are being let down within the workplace, and must resort to external
procedures available through HREOC and other tribunals.
On this final point, we know the importance
for women who have experienced harassment at work of the existence
of legislative protection such as the Sex Discrimination Act, and
remedies available for redress.
We commend HREOC on the speed and professionalism
with which they conciliate and deal with complaints.
Our experience at the Centre is that
in matters notified to HREOC, our clients receive personalised attention
from conciliators in a manner that is not always received in other
areas of the legal system.
The conciliators are fair and impartial.
Clients are kept well-informed about the progress of their case. Their
lives are not left hanging in the balance with uncertainty. HREOC's
approach also does not give them unrealistic expectations about potential
outcomes of their case.
We also note that businesses are not
treated like pariahs in this process. Instead they are assisted to
formulate practical policies and procedures that will assist them
to comply with the law and avoid future litigation.
So again, and for many reasons I thank
HREOC for the opportunity to speak today.
I would like to address two key points
in this talk, and these are both issues raised by HREOC in the review.
1. The issue of unreported
harassment.2. The impact of sexual harassment
on the lives of the women who experience it.
These two issues are, of course, connected.
In order to outline how the NSW Working
Women's Centre is able to provide some insight into these two key
questions, I need first to outline the service that we provide to
the women of NSW.
Firstly, our InfoLine.
The Working Women's InfoLine receives
approximately 1,600 calls a year from women who receive advice, information
and assistance about work-related issues ranging from pay and conditions
to dismissal, redundancy, maternity entitlements, discrimination and,
of course, sexual harassment.
The Centre also provides additional
representation, advocacy and assistance to individual clients with
specific needs in relation to a problem or dispute at work, including
in relation to sexual harassment.
We also undertake a outreach, education
and training work with a range of different organisations, groups
and women. For instance, since its inception, the Centre has worked
closely with education providers and community organisations in NSW
to conduct workshops for women who are seeking to enter the workforce,
providing them with a better understanding of their rights at work.
These workshops are targeted to women from non-English speaking backgrounds
entering the Australian labour market for the first time, and to women
from the mainstream Australian white community and the black community
who have spent considerable time outside of paid work. We have also
more recently been working with a number of agencies to deliver training
in effective management, compliance and good work practices for Aboriginal
community organisations, most of which are run by volunteers, and
In preparing our response to this paper,
we actually had a look at the calls to the InfoLine service during
the period roughly corresponding to the complaints reviewed by HREOC
in A Bad Business - (that is, from the period
of July 2001 to June 2002). We also took into account the casework
relating to sexual harassment undertaken by the service, and feedback
from our education and training programs in discussions with women
about sexual harassment at work.
The statistics from the InfoLine are
instructive because although they are raw data?, and have yet to be
subject to close analysis, they do back up the findings of the HREOC
For instance, during the identified
period (from July 2001 to June 2002), the Centre fielded 70 calls
from women seeking advice and information in relation to an incident
or incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Bearing this in mind, I can tell you that of the calls relating to
sexual harassment from women contacting our InfoLine between the period
of June 2001 and July 2003:
40% of clients worked as
clerical or administrative workers, and another 26% in the area
of sales - representing a substantial over-representation
of these occupational groups in relation to the Australian workforce
This is perhaps reflective of not only
the gender segregated nature of the Australian workforce, but also
a reflection that the overwhelming majority of women who contact our
service work in non-unionised areas of work.
Likewise, the industry
of the employer is instructive. The calls over this period
can be broken down with the key industries being wholesale/retail
(20%), property and business (12%) and hospitality (ie hotels/accommodation/restaurants)
(12%), manufacturing (13%).
Taking into account the occupational
breakdown, and HREOC's finding of the age and power discrepancy between
perpetrator and the subject of the harassment, the industry breakdown
is instructive. When we have a picture of the workplace situation,
it is much easier to develop a closer understanding of the circumstances
in which harassment is taking place.
33% of inquiries from the
period were from women under 25 years of age, more than half (51%)
were in the 26-44 age group.
Whilst our age-collection data is not
as specific and does not exactly match that of HREOC's categories,
it is nevertheless indicative of our experience that women who are
subject to sexual harassment are generally younger than the perpetrator,
who is generally in a more senior position within the company, often
in direct relation to and with power over their employment - such
as a supervisor, manager, business owner but also co-worker.
Almost one third of inquiries
(30%) were received from regional and rural areas, reflecting
the HREOC finding that sexual harassment is not an issue limited
to any one area. It is happening everywhere.
6%of these callers had
also been dismissed from employment.
Of course without further study, it
is not possible provide details about the outcomes of any disputes
in relation to the termination of employment, or whether these women
are still employed in the workplace where the harassment occurred.
I can tell you, however, that in all
of the sexual harassment cases that we have picked up as intensive
casework matters arising out of any of these calls, our staff advise
that they are not aware of any clients who have continued their employment
at the place of business.
This brings me to one of the
key issues I wanted to raise today, which is the under-reporting of
The Working Women's Centre welcomes
HREOC's announcement that it has commissioned a telephone survey of
the general incidence of sexual harassment in Australia. It is our
expectation that provided the survey is anonymous and conducted in
a culturally sensitive manner, and when I say culturally sensitive
I mean to all Australian women and taking into account the cultures
of workplaces and communities, we will be overwhelmed by what comes
The Centre is certainly willing to
offer whatever appropriate support we can to assist HREOC in conducting
this critically important research.
It is our experience that there are
many, complex and varied reasons as to why so many instances of sexual
harassment do go unreported, and why it is that the calls to our agency,
and complaints to HREOC and other agencies are, as the review itself
notes, "the tip of the iceberg."
I believe that the Working Women's
Centre can shed some light on this because in our direct conversations
with women about their concerns at work we deal with the micro level,
the individual experience of the harassment and its impact on the
life of the women who have experienced it.
Many express fears about speaking out
or making formal complaints about their harassment, often based on
fears of the ramifications of doing so:
fear of not being believed
fear of the reactions of co-workers
fears about the perpetrator's
response if they pursue a formal complaint, particularly being subject
to further and even intensified harassment
fear of the reaction of their
partners, husbands, boyfriends, family, friends - that their experience
is somehow shameful and will not be understood
fear of losing their job.
These fears are not unfounded. They
are borne out by the data of the HREOC review - with the vast majority
of complainants no longer employed in the workplace where the harassment
occurred - and by what our own clients are telling us. Also, as the
HREOC review indicates, the perpetrator is often older and in a position
of relative power within the organisation. Most of the women who contact
our service understand this very well.
It is also important to note that sexual
harassment frequently happens in secret. There is some irony in the
reality that a much higher public awareness of the illegal nature
of sexual harassment - and the existence of policies and legal remedies
- has perhaps meant that sexual harassers are being more clever about
not being seen.
It's our experience that where workplace
policies are not in place or are badly implemented, women have a hard
time being believed - and workplaces can respond punitively towards
the complainant rather than seeking to develop appropriate responses
to prevent its continuation.
Cultural issues are also a very important
in relation to the under-reporting of harassment.
Over one quarter (26%)
of the calls to the InfoLine in the identified period were received
from women who spoke a language other than English as their first
We note that the HREOC review found
that Australian-born complainants were over-represented in the complaints
It is our experience in working with
culturally diverse communities that women from non-English speaking
backgrounds are less likely to be aware of legal protections, or their
rights in relation to work in general.
Our outreach and education work provides
further insight into cultural factors that might impact on a woman's
capacity to make a complaint. Where employment options are limited
by language and skill-recognition barriers, it's simply not realistic
to 'vote with your feet'.
Women from non English speaking backgrounds
are also far less likely to be aware of legislative and other protections
available in the workplace or externally, and while this is more true
of certain community groups than others, we are able to make this
statement authoratively, especially as it pertains to more recently
arrived groups. Additional ramifications within their communities
and families may also impact on their capacity to pursue a formal
complaint, particularly if the perpetrator is well-known or powerful.
We have found that this is also the case with Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander women, who are, of course, two distinct groups. The
HREOC data notes two complaints from Indigenous women in its review.
I can advise that the Centre received no inquiries to the InfoLine
during the identified period about sexual harassment from Indigenous
I can say, though, that in the series
of workshops that we have run with Aboriginal women's organisations
and communities in NSW over the last 18 months, the issue of sexual
harassment has consistently been raised and discussed frequently in
the safe environments created as being a major issue of concern -
particularly for younger workers.
It is widely recognised that Aboriginal
women experience prejudice and, I think we need to name, deep racism
that impacts on their capacity to access mainstream employment.
Their experiences at work are very
much tied to issues experienced by their communities more generally.
We have begun working with Aboriginal
organisations and a number of agencies involved in this project to
develop more culturally appropriate procedures and more effective
management strategies to address their needs and concerns. These discussions
are ongoing - and part of the NSW Working Women's Centre commitment
to our Indigenous clients is to develop as directed by them culturally
appropriate strategies to address this issue. We will certainly be
consulting with HREOC as we progress with this.
This brings me to the second issue
I want to raise here today, which is how women experience sexual harassment
and its impact on their lives.
In relation to issues of sexual harassment,
we are like a rape crisis centre, assisting the individual to deal
with the impact of the assault. We can also be likened to a hospital
who treats someone who has been severely burned. Society is sympathetic
towards the injured, and has come a long way in extending sympathies
and support to the victims of rape in the last twenty years. Fortunately,
and rightly, it is now rare that the victim is blamed.
Unfortunately this does not appear
to be the case with sexual harassment at work.
So what do women who have been
sexually harassed feel? How do they respond to this harassment?
Our clients often tell us that they
If we understand sexual harassment
as a form of sexual assault, coming from the same motivation and abuse
of power for inappropriate ends, then this makes sense.
When describing the experience of sexual
harassment to our InfoLine, women often become very upset. They often
report feeling confused and uncertain. Many are traumatised and express
uncertainty about what exactly happened, and experience self-doubt,
and uncertainty about why they have been targeted.
The experience can also take its toll
on health, well-being and other areas of their lives - including their
relationships … with families, partners, husbands, boyfriends,
parents and children, with their co-workers and their friends.
In talking to these women, it is particularly
important that others validate their experience. It should also be
noted that uncertainty and disbelief is often a factor that impacts
on the resolution of the situation, and also on the recovery of the
woman and her ability to move beyond the experience once the situation
"The hardest thing is the feeling that they didn't believe me,"
a client said recently to one of our advisors. She was at the time
on anti-depressants, which she had been prescribed for the depression
that she had experienced after she had lodged the complaint about
a supervisor with her employer, who had failed to address her complaint
appropriately and she had continued to be subject to harassment until
she left her employment.
The likelihood of her return to work
for this woman in the near future is doubtful. This is someone without
any previous history of depression or any other kind of mental health
problem. She has not worked since leaving her employment and was receiving
A Bad Business provides
us with a clear message that women who are subjected to sexual harassment
are being let down by procedures and protections at the workplace
As the HREOC review and our own clients
advise, some are even dismissed when they make a complaint. The lack
of procedures means that the harassment can be allowed to continue,
or if handled badly, escalate into other forms of harassment and victimisation.
With over one in four complainants
no longer working at the place of employment where the harassment
occurred, we return to the fact that women who have been sexually
harassed have genuine and well-founded fears about what will happen
if they do report the harassment: that they rather than the
perpetrators, will be the ones who will be blamed for what has happened.
The message that this sends to the
perpetrators is critical. Poor implementation, or inaction, and discipline
of the complainant rather than the perpetrator, effectively sanctions
the inappropriate behaviour. It may also be a factor in encouraging
This is not healthy for any of the
parties involved, and will only ensure that the situation gets worse.
When I was first approached to speak
today and we held some discussions at the NSW Working Women's Centre
about the information provided by our clients, we tried to think of
ways in which I could bring some kind of humorous relief to such a
We had a discussion about jokes and
cultural references on the topic.
Most of what we came up with was basically
The old jokes and television shows
that make light of office groping or innuendo are dated and offensive.
And they're just not funny when you've talked to someone who's experienced
it first hand.
The only reference we could come up
with that made light of it in a positive way was the film 9 to
5. Of course, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin's actions shouldn't
be taken literally. Fortunately there are now legislative and other
protections and remedies in place, such as the Sex Discrimination
Act. So there's no longer a need to encourage women to go out and
restrain the boss in bondage gear for inappropriate behaviour - even
That said, it is hard to make light
of this subject precisely because it is serious business. We know
that sexual harassment impacts negatively on workplaces, on women's
capacity to work, on broader health issues, and on society more generally.
It is, as HREOC rightly points out, A Bad Business indeed.
Prevention and good management through
effective procedures and proper implementation is the socially responsible
and - as Pru has pointed out - most cost-effective way to address
I thank HREOC, the Sex Discrimination
Unit and Pru for asking me to speak today. The NSW Working Women's
Centre has very much a micro-level understanding of the impact of
this issue. We are about dealing with real people in real situations,
and are concerned that the issue is not demeaned by sensationalism
or political pointscoring - and it is helpful to our service, and
for the collaborative work we do with agencies such as HREOC - to
have this recognised.
I also take this opportunity to mention that the Centre is certainly
in an effective position to deliver training and other consultancy
services to business organisations who are committed to developing
practical workplace solutions on the question of workplace sexual
harassment, and other forms of harassment.
It is our belief that effective workplace
solutions can be achieved - through collaboration between employers,
employees, governments and agencies such as HREOC and the Working
Women's Centre - for the benefit of all concerned.
Again I commend the work of HREOC
in highlighting the issue and laying foundations to enable effective
solutions to emerge.