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Combating sexual harassment in the work place — leading the way to change

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Women aren't always the victims, but either way more needs to be done to stop workplace sexual harassment (Image supplied)

Levels of sexual harassment have reached crisis point in Australian workplaces, with our youngest employees at the highest risk. Sonia Hickey asks if we can eradicate sexual harassment once and for all.

AS THE RESULT of a survey conducted last year by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) which found that sexual harassment in Australian workplaces is not only rife but on the rise, the commission set about conducting an independent national inquiry, considered to the first of its kind, appointing Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins at the helm.

Submissions have now closed and the inquiry’s findings are expected sometime later this year. The aim will be to make recommendations for dealing with sexual harassment, because, in statistical terms, the problem is at crisis point.

Current figures show:

  • One in three people reported being sexually harassed in the workplace — this figure has risen by 21% since 2012.
  • 71% reported being sexually harassed at some point in their lives and that women are far more likely to experience sexual harassment than men — 85% versus 56%.
  • Young people are at the greatest risk in the workplace, with the figures suggesting that 45% of people aged between 18 and 29 had been subjected to this kind of treatment.
  • Alarmingly, one in five 15 to 17-year-olds reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.

While researchers concede the influx in reporting may partly be due to initiatives such as the #MeToo movement, there’s also a concern the figures actually don’t represent the full story. Many victims, particularly males, are unlikely to report harassment for fear of being mocked or not believed, or the risk of facing reprisals from colleagues and damage to their careers.

What exactly is sexual harassment?

The AHRC report identified the three most common forms of harassment as:

  • offensive, sexually suggestive comments or jokes;
  • inappropriate physical contact; and
  • unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing.

Researchers also found that workplace sexual harassment often goes unpunished because only 17% of people make formal reports or complaints to their employers and 19% of reported cases did not lead to any action being taken.

Two in three bystanders who witnessed a colleague being sexually harassed admitted they did nothing, believing that taking any action could make it worse for the victim.

Ignoring the problem

Despite the fact that sexual harassment has been illegal for more than 25 years in Australia, it remains a massive problem. For victims of sexual harassment, there can be significant financial and emotional repercussions. We also know that victims tend to tolerate the conduct for a while, but later leave their jobs rather than report the conduct. Why? Many say it is because workplaces ignore or don’t deal with the problem.

Perhaps this is because employers aren’t adequately equipped to do so. Given that more than 80% of respondents to the 2017 Employsure Workplace Index admitting they find the Fair Work Act confusing, dealing with an incident of sexual harassment can involve other complex legislation with regard to employee rights and employer responsibilities.

Let’s not forget that in Australia, 2.3 million small businesses make up a significant chunk of our economy. These are not business with large, experienced in-house HR and legal teams to fall back on. 

So, this is possibly part of the problem. Add to that an Australian social culture which only 30 years ago considered that pinching a woman on the bottom was a real compliment. This isn’t an excuse, it is simply another factor in the equation, a macro aspect of the male-female dynamic that is changing, albeit slowly.

But one of the main reasons that sexual harassment still exists at such alarming levels is assumption. Most of us simply assume that men and women will behave professionally and cordially in the workplace. But what exactly does that behaviour look like in practice? Do we have the right conversations that define it? Or do we only define it once an incident has occurred?

Of course, relationships between men and women can be either clear cut or varying shades of grey, offering up thousands of variations of slightly inappropriate to extremely inappropriate behaviour. Certainly, someone incessantly making sexualised comments or touching a colleague inappropriately are easier to “diagnose” than perhaps a lewd, sexist joke told to a group at the watercooler. 

Added to this, we each have varying levels of personal tolerance. Meaning that what one of us might find very offensive, others may not.  

Say, for example, two or three colleagues heard the joke. Some of them found it offensive, others didn’t. Are those who didn’t implicated in allowing the very behaviour we’re trying to stamp out? 

What is the way forward?

There’s no doubt that understanding the nuances in any circumstance is important.  

The bottom line is that if behaviour is deemed unwelcome by the person it was directed towards or witnessed by, then it needs to be acknowledged as such (unless the accusation is undoubtedly false).

The impact of the behaviour is what needs to be focused on and addressed. There is no need to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but at the same time, there should be real consequences for any behaviour that impacts someone’s ability to feel comfortable and safe in their place of work.  

Even if the “intention” of the sexist joke we used in an example above was not to cause harm but to make others laugh, if it has offended someone, or if in their view it was derogatory or inappropriate, then it is this impact which needs to be a basis for determining “acceptable” workplace behaviour.

And so, we’ve come full circle. This is a highly complex, highly emotive issue.

But it’s not enough anymore to focus on why sexual harassment occurs or who perpetrates it, when or how often.

We need to find innovative solutions — to eradicate poor behaviour, to educate people what sexual harassment looks like in its many and varied forms.

Dismantling male-dominated hierarchies in favour of flatter management structures, ensuring more women are promoted to senior positions, greater focus on changing workplace cultures and encouraging open discussions to facilitate greater reporting of sexual harassment are all potential solutions with real merit.

But, to date, as the statistics show, they have had little impact.

Measuring the impact on the bottom line

Here’s the thing: Traditionally, companies have shown that they won’t act unless there is community pressure or a Government mandate to do so.

With this in mind, today’s leaders have a real opportunity to make a difference.

What if we singled out sexual harassment as a standalone business issue, no longer bundling it in together with all other Human Resource matters?

What if we encouraged leaders to take a courageous, real, honest look at their teams, to determine the extent of the problem?

Then, what if we set out to identify behavioural standards and initiatives to effect change that have KPIs that are measured and reported annually?

As we all know, absenteeism and staff turnover (both of which are by-products of sexual harassment) have a significant financial impact. This, if nothing else, should provide a compelling business case for eradicating the problem.  

Furthermore, as we have also witnessed over the past decade or so, with the push for businesses to operate in a more sustainable and ecological way, those companies that have embraced change (such as becoming paperless offices or removing child labour and excessively polluting factories from their supply chains) have not just had a positive impact on the environment, they’ve won the hearts and minds of employees and consumers.

There are real positives for brand reputation (and a direct measurable increase in both employee and customer engagement and loyalty, resulting in profit) when a company openly acknowledges a problem it is perpetuating, takes responsibility and can prove effective change.

Women tomato pickers in Florida took a similar approach with positive effect. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, representing the tomato pickers, fought to have a safe complaint system written into their labour agreement — the Fair Food Program. In addition to better pay and improved working conditions, workers insisted on a way to address sexual harassment. And they added a small but hugely significant detail — an independent body to be the arbiter. Complaints take some time to investigate and address, but there are real-life consequences for farmers who don’t take action against employees found to be perpetrators of sexual abuse.  

By also convincing some of the USA’s biggest tomato purchasers (for example: McDonald's, Walmart, Whole Foods) to only buy produce from fields that were part of the Fair Food Program – which ensures workers are treated justly – the consequences for farmers who don’t take action is that they won’t be part of the Program and therefore cannot sell to the large tomato buyers. Their market disappears.

This is the kind of change we need to see if we’re to eradicate sexual harassment once and for all.

For Australian workplaces to continue along and blindly accept high rates of sexual harassment as the “norm” is no longer tenable. And any company leader that believes that sexual harassment is not happening under his or her watch is kidding themselves. Nothing changes if nothing changes, but, more than that, those leaders brave enough to face the problem and commit to solving it have much to gain, not the least of which is a positive impact on the bottom line.

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of Woman with Words. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers content team.

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