The prevalence of sexual misconduct, assault and harassment in Australian workplaces warrants employers treating this as a serious health and safety hazard and responding accordingly.
Help lines, such as the one established by Channel Nine in the wake of the Burke allegations, provide a mechanism for workers to report sexual misconduct.
What would be more useful, however, is if employers took responsibility and stopped the violent, predatory behaviour before it starts.
Australian women experience high levels of gendered violence, including sexist comments, belittling behaviour, intimation, stalking, sexual assault and rape at work.
Recent research initiated by the Victorian Trades Hall Council on women’s rights and safety at work found that 64 per cent of women participants had experienced sexual harassment or violence in their workplace. Nineteen per cent of these women left a secure job because they didn’t feel safe at work.
A 2017 survey of workers in the hospitality industry in Victoria indicated that more than 85 per cent of workers, male and female, had been sexually harassed at work.
These figures are consistent with numerous academic studies and equal opportunity investigations on the prevalence of sexual harassment at work over time. They also reflect the levels of violence that Australian women experience in the community.
Given that more than one Australian women per week is killed by a partner or former domestic partner and eight in 10 women aged 18 to 24 were harassed on the street in the past year, it’s not surprising that the same phenomenon is prevalence in our workplaces.
Sexual harassment will cost me how much?
Violent behaviour and the underlying sexist assumptions and attitudes that drive it don’t stop at the factory gate or the office door.
This violence is injuring women. The injuries can be physical and psychosocial. They include physical injury and illness, feelings of isolation and exclusion the loss of secure employment and family dislocation. In some instances, they result in post-traumatic stress disorders.
The 2015 Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission investigation into sexual harassment and predatory behaviour within Victoria Police extensively documented the impact of sexist culture on victims, including in some instances attempts at suicide.
It also impacts an organisation’s bottom line: increasing costs of recruitment due to lower retention rates; causing reduced morale and increased absenteeism; the direct and indirect costs of investigations; and as recently evidenced the substantial repetitional damage associated with failure to address.
Rather than responding after the fact, employers, and the women in their employ, would benefit from getting on the front foot.
Firstly, they need to accept that this violence exists and that it is preventable.
Then employers, and our workplace health and safety regulators, should adopt a new response committed to removing this hazard from the workplace.
The “outing” of high-profile celebrity perpetrators might suggest that this is the conduct of a few rogue individuals in positions of power, however the data demonstrates this is not the case.
Not in my workplace? Think again
The prevalence of violence against women in our community and our workplaces means that every employer should conclude that gendered violence is likely to exist in their organisations. Employers can then audit the extent of their risks and eliminate it.
A risk-identification approach would focus on cultures of gender inequality and sexism that are the drivers of gendered violence.
This violence occurs where men control positions of power at work and where women are in more vulnerable positions in the labour market or the workplace. For example, where women are in casual work or are insecurely employed; if they speak don’t English well; if they are visa or migrant workers: or they are new entrants to the labour market, such as young workers.
Understanding the demography of the workplace would allow the employer to identify their risk and take affirmative steps to eliminate the potential for gendered violence.
They could address this risk by moving women into supervisory and leadership roles, providing more secure employment arrangements and providing programs for particularly vulnerable groups of workers, to enable them to understand their employment rights.
Stop over-rewarding male ‘go-getters’
An examination of workplace cultures and the recognition and reward systems within organisations would also be useful in identifying risk.
Organisations that have hyper-masculine cultures or cultures that re-enforce dominant gender stereotypes are likely to have problems.
What roles are performed by whom within the organisation? Australia has one of the highest levels of workforce gender segregation in the OECD. There is a rigidity in how we see who does what work.
Organisations can overcome this my taking affirmative steps to recruit beyond the stereotypes. Recognition and reward systems that promote the male “go getters” and penalise those who have outside work responsibility re-enforce gender stereotyping.
Presuming that women will be good at getting the organising, administrative and caring work done reinforces sexist attitudes and behaviours.
Many of the accepted traditional ways of doing and rewarding work in organisations are in fact perpetuating a climate within which sexism and violence against women can permeate.
If employers don’t accept gendered violence as a serious health and safety risk that is likely to be present in their workplaces, we will continue to have women being injured by this violence.
In the past, too much time has been spent on systems of documenting and reporting experiences of violence. Given what we now know about its prevalence at work and in the community, it’s time to move the emphasis to stopping the violence before it occurs.
This will only happen when employers accept it as a serious health and safety risk, address its underlying causes and take the necessary steps to eliminate it.
Treating this issue as if it isolated to the behaviours of a few rogue individuals is not acceptable.