Want to end sexual harassment? Then be proactive – not reactive

Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia
Opinion pieces
Topics Gender

This week, in Parliament, Senators are debating changes to how our laws will deal with sexual and sex-based harassment. It’s an historic opportunity to make real, lasting, powerful change so that the next generation(s) of Australians can go to work knowing that they will be safe and respected.

But I am concerned that the changes being discussed in Parliament this week won’t go far enough to actually prevent sexual harassment from happening in Australian workplaces.  

When I started out working in the 1990s, the workplace looked different. Widespread internet use was a few years away, so too were mobile phones. The workforce was also even more segregated than today.

Sexual harassment was rife. And it was tolerated by the ‘boys’ clubs’.

I remember walking into one of my first jobs and having to endure being groped up against a filing cabinet, having someone rub themselves against my back when I was at the photocopier, sitting through my manager’s presentation of the Elle Macpherson swimsuit calendar, month by month at the start of a team meeting,  having to say no to requests for sexual favours from men who were senior to me, constant sexual jokes, innuendos, put-downs because I was one of only a few ‘girls’ on the floor and I won’t go into what used to happen at Friday night drinks. 

What I experienced in just my first few years in the workplace was enough to change the course of my career and ignite my passion for diversity and inclusion – and gender equality.

In the last couple of decades things have changed. Technology is different. We have more female CEOs (although we are still not close to parity).

While in some ways, and in some workplaces, sexual harassment still looks very much like what I experienced in my first job, in a lot of ways sexual harassment looks very different now. But the rates of sexual harassment have not gone down. Partly it’s broader spectrum of behaviours around harassment (think online harassment), plus with changed community standards, we are willing to tolerate less.

But still almost every woman has an anecdote about being harassed at work. The guy who exposed himself to her in the office. The long lunches where a male colleague kept touching her inappropriately. The constant comments that were laughed off as ‘compliments’ or ‘just a joke’. The boss who would talk about his female employee’s breasts to other men who came into the office. And now the pornographic images and harassing messages sent via email or online chats.

Fact: sexual harassment has happened to almost all women. 85% of us.

Sexual harassment is everywhere. And Australian women are fed up. That’s why we marched. And that’s why I hoped that we were at a real turning point. Not just in the way that we talk about sexual harassment and assault. But in terms of how we deal with it.

When the Government responded to Kate Jenkins’ [email protected] report, I thought this would be our chance real action on sexual harassment. So, I was disappointed that the Government’s Respect at Work Bill doesn’t implement all of the recommendations outlined in Kate Jenkins’ report.

While I support the amendments proposed under the Bill in its current form, I also believe they do not go far enough.

In my capacity as Diversity Council of Australia’s CEO, I recently gave evidence to the Senate inquiry examining the Bill arguing for a ‘positive duty’ on employers to be one of the key recommendations to come out of the [email protected] report.

As the bill moves forward through the legislative process, that critical point of positive duties – putting the onus on businesses to take steps to mitigate harassment, instead of waiting for a complaint to spark action – has not been included.

And the missed opportunities in this bill make no sense to me.

At the moment, we have a system whereby attention is only given to the actions an employer has taken to prevent sexual harassment after a complaint is made.

Changing the law in this way would incentivise employers to address systemic drivers of sexual harassment and help prevent it occurring in the first place.

Think of it like mass vaccinations. Prevention is always better than cure.

We have a moment, right now, to create lasting change for future generations of men and women. It’s not too late for the Government to amend their Bill.

Lots of Australian businesses already act, plan and implement processes to mitigate sexual harassment.

But to drive change, we need all of them to do this. While I know that most employers won’t want more regulation, based on our work with DCA members over many years, we believe that a positive duty will focus employers on actions that will lead to more respectful and inclusive workplace cultures and this will significantly benefit their business.  In the long run, the positive duty will save them time, money and risk. 

At the end of the day, businesses are not really about the products or services, they are about people. And if you proactively create an environment at work where individuals are treated with dignity and respect, you will be rewarded through increased efficiency, innovation, loyalty and customer service.

Published on Women's Agenda, 31 August 2021

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