Friday, 08 January 2016

Sexual harassment should never be part of a woman’s job description

The first week of 2016 is yet to draw to a close but we have already seen a spate of inappropriate workplace behaviours which have sex discrimination at their core.

Take for example the much talked about incident of a high profile cricketer sexually harassing a female journalist on live TV.

While a famous cricketer using his post match interview as a opportunity to hit on a female journalist on live TV might seem shocking to some, for many others, it was ‘just a joke’ or ‘just a bit of fun.’ In fact, incidents like this clearly illustrate what many of us have been pointing out for years, that sexual harassment is alive and well in modern day workplaces.

Such demeaning and offensive behaviour is not a joke; it is against the law. Perhaps even more concerning is the persistence of the culture that insists on protecting and excusing men's behaviour, making it very difficult for female victims to speak up and for the behaviour to be adequately addressed and stamped out.

Just last month, the Commission launched a watershed report into sex discrimination and sexual harassment in Victoria Police. The findings revealed widespread sexual harassment, along with an entrenched culture of sexism and misogyny. We know that these issues are by no means isolated to Victoria Police. The string of inappropriate behaviour that has littered the first week of 2016 clearly demonstrates that sex discrimination in the workplace is a problem that exists everywhere, especially in traditionally male-dominated workplaces. In other words, despite 40 years of anti-discrimination laws, we clearly still have a problem accepting women as equals.

Many are surprised that in 2016, women’s progress for equality in the workplace has been so slow: women are paid less, retire with significantly less savings, suffer sexual harassment, experience discrimination on becoming a parent, and only the minority attain leadership roles. This poor progress affects our economy and the performance of our workplaces and also impacts families and individuals.

The lesson for 2016 is that, while overt discrimination has reduced, it is the everyday sexism and normalisation of sexual harassment that is the main impediment to gender equality. Managers need to understand that this conduct is not harmless and that good workplaces don’t accept sexist behaviour. It is not a 'compliment' for someone more powerful than you to treat you as a sexual object. And you should not be labelled as a trouble-maker because you object to this treatment. In fact, your colleagues should know immediately when the boundaries have been crossed without needing to gauge your response. In time a small cultural reset in Australian workplaces will pay huge dividends for gender equality.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission has spent the past 40 years educating people about equality. This is not just because the laws says we should, but because putting up with sexual harassment should never be part of a woman’s job description.

Kate Jenkins, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner