Friday, 08 March 2019 09:48

As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, the Commission is calling for stronger laws to deal with sexual harassment

Imagine hiding out in the toilets at work every day from 4.45 pm because your boss demands a ‘goodbye hug’ before he goes home. Some days hiding out works, but other times he waits for you. Some days he pretends he can’t remember whether he’s already said goodbye, and he circles back for another hug. Everyone acts as if it’s just one of his quirks, but it doesn’t feel like that to you.

For many women and some men, a scenario like this doesn’t involve any imagination – because they’ve experienced it.

We hear about these sorts of experiences every day at the Commission, and what becomes clear is that individuals who raise complaints of sexual harassment at work bear a heavy burden.

Not just the burden of shining a light on predatory behaviour, of re-living a traumatic experience, of exposing themselves to scrutiny – but the burden of challenging and changing our long-held attitudes about what workplace behaviour is acceptable, and what isn’t.

That’s the fundamental weakness of our current system for dealing with sexual harassment complaints – that it’s the individual complainants who have to do the heavy lifting.

If we’re serious about transforming how we deal with sexual harassment, we need to shift this burden away from individual complainants and strengthen our legal framework, as we argue in our submission to the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces.

An important first step is to acknowledge sexual harassment as a symptom of gender inequality.

While sexual harassment can happen anywhere and can target anyone, the complaints and enquiries that the Commission receives tell us it’s a heavily gendered issue and that intersectionality – for example, being a woman with a disability – heightens the risk.

In the complaints we received in 2017–18, 81.4 per cent of the complainants who had experienced sexual harassment were women, and 96.5 per cent of harassers were men.

In most cases, sexual harassment is paired with other forms of discrimination – for example, 55 per cent of people who made a complaint about sexual harassment also complained about sex discrimination, and 43 per cent had experienced victimisation related to sexual harassment.

We can see gender inequality manifest at work through rigid gender stereotypes, ideologies of male entitlement and privilege, pervasive social norms that shape our idea of masculinity, and structures that give the person at the top unfettered power to hire, fire and promote without any checks and balances.

These things normalise sexual harassment as part of our working lives, permit poor organisational responses when complainants come forward and, in the longer term, lead to low rates of reporting.

The lesson here is that if we are serious about preventing sexual harassment we need to turn our thinking to the systems, structures and policies that have allowed harassment to become normalised.

Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act obliges employers, educators, providers of goods and services, and others to not just deal with complaints about sexual harassment when they arise, but to proactively prevent it from occurring. However, this positive duty isn’t enforceable.

To really tackle sexual harassment, the Commission requires stronger powers to use the positive duty to drive systemic change.

An enforceable positive duty can act as a trigger for own-motion investigations, which shift our thinking about sexual harassment as isolated incidents to a deeper understanding of the patterns, drivers, and wide-ranging impacts of sexual harassment within and across industries and workplaces. In turn, this kind of deep understanding will prove invaluable for developing effective responses at a system level.

The high-profile sexual harassment cases we’ve seen played out in the media point to the distressing inadequacy of our current systems and signal the need for swifter, more supportive and victim-centred complaints processes – ones that focus less on evidence and more on impact.

It takes courage and maturity for employers to engage in a process like this.

Innovative models, such as restorative justice, focus on healing the harm that has been caused by sexual harassment, rather than dealing with it as a breach of the law. It requires employers to acknowledge complainants’ trauma, to listen and empathise, and to articulate what changes they’ll make to avoid anyone else experiencing the same thing.

We are living through tremendous change right now. This process won’t always be easy, but navigating realities that may be discomforting or threatening is critical as we move from public conversations about gender equality to actually disrupting the power structures and systems that have normalised inequities over centuries.

There is some great, collaborative work happening across the sector, and I have every confidence that the majority of us support a shared vision of a world where women and girls live safer lives free from violence, so too for men and boys; a world in which we are not confined to traditional and restrictive notions of gender and power.

Kristen Hilton
Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner

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