In 2018, with the #MeToo movement in full swing and women demanding that rich and powerful men be held to account for their harassment and abuse, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins launched a landmark inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.
In her foreword to the report Ms Jenkins writes that Australia has dropped the ball and now “lags behind other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment”, describing the current legal and regulatory system as “simply no longer fit for purpose”.
“I have been devastated by the experiences of sexual harassment within workplaces I have heard about through this inquiry, the harms suffered by victims and the cost to the economy,” Ms Jenkins says.
“In this report, I have recommended a new model that improves the coordination, consistency and clarity between the anti-discrimination, employment and work health and safety legislative schemes.”
Thirty-five years since the introduction of 1984’s Sex Discrimination Act, sexual harassment in Australian workplaces remains a massive problem. While years of awareness-raising and the efforts of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have culminated in many high-profile scalps, the reality is that sexual harassment remains an insidious feature of workplaces across the country.
In fact, according to the Human Rights Commission’s (HRC) 2018 national survey
, Everyone’s Business
, workplace sexual harassment is actually increasing
, with a third of all workers – including two in every five women – targeted in the previous five years.
The survey found that 85 per cent of women and 56 per cent of men had suffered sexual harassment int the workplace in their lives, the most common forms being offensive comments or jokes; inappropriate physical contact; and unwelcome touching, hugging, cornering or kissing.
The HRC notes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers, young workers under 30, LGBTQI workers, workers with disability and workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are especially vulnerable and experience a higher incidence of harassment.
The changing workplace
There are many cultural, economic and technological reasons why we’re losing the fight against sexual harassment. Among those is the changing makeup of the workplace and the nature of work arrangements.
In 1984, when the Sex Discrimination Act was passed, 94 per cent of all working men were employed full-time; now it’s 80 per cent. Over the same period the workforce participation rate for women soared, but only 56 per cent of women work in full-time roles.
Temporary, on-call work, contracting and other non-standard and precarious employment arrangements are now increasingly common after decades of neoliberal assault on working conditions and the relentless drive towards casualisation.
The Commission heard that people working in such vulnerable situations are often unable or unwilling to report instances of harassment. For one thing, many have never met or might not even know who their boss is, while they are also more likely to be “reluctant to complain to avoid their contracts not being renewed or being assigned fewer hours of work”. This makes them much more likely to be targets of harassment.
Declining union membership is also a contributing factor, with the Commission finding low awareness among workers of their rights, combined with “less collective action and support between workers, and less representative complaints and advocacy by trade unions”.
Ms Jenkins says that although it’s up to governments and authorities to bring Australian laws and regulations in line with global best practice, every Australian had a role to play in eliminating sexual harassment.
“Sexual harassment is not a women’s issue: it is a societal issue, which every Australian, and every Australian workplace, can contribute to addressing,” she says.
“Workplace sexual harassment is not inevitable. It is not acceptable. It is preventable.”
Despite challenges to their influence in the workplace Australian unions work hard every day to protect workers and respond to incidents of sexual harassment. Click here
to find out about Hospo Voice’s “Respect is the Rule” campaign, a response to the shockingly high rate of harassment experienced by young women working in hospitality. And read the ACTU’s joint statement
with 100 other organisations calling for a coordinated government response to “create sexual harassment-free workplaces”.
The Respect@Work report notes that the use of non-disclosure agreements by businesses to protect their financial and reputational interests contributes to “a culture of silence”. Read one woman’s story and find out more about the issue here
With Harvey Weinstein found guilty of rape last month the #MeToo movement still has momentum but no clear direction. The New York Times
has a good analysis here