I'm here because the real story of #MeToo is much bigger than front-page scandals. The real story is the quiet prevalence of deeply unsurprised people across our state: those who believe that sexual harassment is as eternal as the weather. And those who still put up with it every day, resigned in the belief that little will change, or that the risk of complaining is too high. This International Women's Day, tomorrow, what can we do for them?
For almost four decades, the commission has handled complaints about sexual harassment in Victoria’s workplaces. We know that it is pervasive, widely tolerated and drastically under-reported in our state and beyond. Half of all Australian women have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, according to the latest ABS figures, with 2.4 million Australians experiencing it in the past year. And the proportion of women who say they’ve been harassed in the past year is rising (from 15 per cent in 2012 to 17 per cent in 2016).
So we want to be clear about the seriousness of the change needed. This is the moment to think big. Victoria’s employers must reshape our workplaces to prioritise the prevention of sexual harassment, and they must start right away.
#MeToo has laid important groundwork. We now have the attention of employers, policy-makers and journalists. The Commission has seen a 40 per cent rise in complaints over the past six months. Change is possible: we can create safe, modern workplaces across Victoria. But it will require three major steps: effective reporting mechanisms, a change in workplace culture, and a commitment to diverse workforces.
First: Employers must establish effective reporting and complaint mechanisms. There must be avenues within the workplace for staff to report harassment without consequence. This may mean conditions of anonymity, and a choice over how reports are dealt with. It may also mean avoiding a formal complaint process – whereby the alleged perpetrator could lose their job or face criminal sanctions – as high stakes can function as a barrier to reporting. The response system needs to be timely, fair and confidential, and complainants must be protected from further victimisation under the law.
This is a complex area, but solutions are being developed and trialled even as I write. For example, a number of universities in the United States and Britain have introduced an app whereby students can anonymously submit concerns about the inappropriate behaviour of lecturers. When a certain number of complaints about an individual are raised through the app, it alerts the university to the concerns. Of course, fairness must be accorded. New methods must be rigorously examined, and they may or may not be deemed effective. But innovation in this area is to be welcomed, and it requires listening to those who have been affected.
At the same time, employers must work hard to rebuild trust in whatever reporting mechanism they have. We know that women don’t report because they don’t trust the system; they have seen complaints buried, complainants fired and known perpetrators promoted and celebrated. But Victorian employers can use the opportunity of #MeToo to take meaningful actions to rebuild trust. A possible action might be an email from the CEO acknowledging #MeToo and assuring staff that they can come forward without consequence. It might be committing to find new channels of communication for staff to report behaviour at all points on the spectrum. It might be ensuring staff are aware of external complaints options, such as the commission. Or it might be finally taking action on a person within the organisation that, as a leader, you know to be "a problem".
Second: Culture change. This means zero tolerance of harassment and sexist behaviour at every level in the organisation. It means losing those practices that discriminate directly or indirectly against women, like doing business on the golf course or putting up posters of scantily clad women in the staff room. And most importantly, it means empowering staff to uphold standards and look out for each other. Research shows that when bystanders stay quiet, it increases the impact of the incident and emboldens the harasser. Simply saying "that’s not OK" can make a huge difference.
Third: Create a diverse workforce. Research shows that workplaces with a high proportion of female staff have much lower levels of sexual harassment. Crucially, women need to be represented at all levels of responsibility and clearly visible in leadership positions. To attract and keep a gender-balanced staff, employers will need policies that support flexible and part-time work, as well as adequate family and carers leave provisions. Flexible work must be available for both men and women, to give families meaningful choices.
We are in a period of disruption, and with that comes uncertainty. There are more than a few issues that are being conflated in this public conversation. But for the record, the definition of sexual harassment under the law is clear: "an unwelcome sexual advance, an unwelcome sexual request or any other unwelcome sexual behaviour which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated". If it feels like sexual harassment then it probably is.
This International Women's Day, doing nothing is not an option. It is no longer acceptable for employers to say they have been blind-sided by sexual harassment. The powerful may express surprise even now at the stories filling our newspapers, but our employers are on notice.
By Kristen Hilton, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner.
First published in The Age on 6 Mar 2018
We can help
The Commission helps people to resolve complaints of sexual harassment by providing a free, impartial conciliation service.
At conciliation both people sit down and negotiate an agreed outcome – this might be an apology, equal opportunity training in the workplace, or a financial settlement.
You can also seek counselling or support from 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).
Mobile: 0459 114 657