This is a transcript of BN Special Counsel Corrina Dowling’s editorial that ran in the Weekend Australian on 2 March 2019.
I’ve seen them. I’ve written them. They generally start with something along the lines of, “Company X does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace …”
They are the ubiquitous sexual harassment policies, rolled out in workplaces across the country (and rightly so). But it’s not enough.
Despite being the first country to prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace 35 years ago, complaints are on the rise and one of the likely reasons why the #MeToo movement, which first gained traction in the US, has resonated with Australians.
What began with allegations of sexual harassment levelled at Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey has grown to become a global phenomenon. But we’re fast learning that these behaviours go beyond the casting couch. While some are overtly transparent, others are more entrenched in our work cultures.
According to the latest figures released by the Australian Human Rights Commission, 27 per cent of sex discrimination claims in 2017-18 related to sexual harassment, up from 24 per cent in 2016-17 and 22 per cent in 2015-16.
The true extent of sexual harassment complaints is impossible to know. Some complaints are dealt with through other legal channels, others are resolved at the workplace, and some complaints are never made. Alarmingly, last year’s National Survey into Workplace Sexual Harassment conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission reported that fewer than one in five people, or 17 per cent, made a formal report or complaint about sexual harassment.
Every day, sexual harassment is being accepted as part of Australia’s corporate culture. It’s being accepted when a manager tells an employee that they should “take it as a compliment”; it’s being accepted when a CEO hears a lewd comment but walks on; it’s being accepted when complaints are dismissed as “friendly banter”. This isn’t just about ‘tradies’ whistling at women as they cross the street, it goes deeper.
And it’s not just women. The survey also reported that in the previous 12 months, while 23 per cent of Australian women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, so too did 16 per cent of men. If you think that figure sounds absurd, then think about this. Just this week, a construction giant settled a sexual harassment claim by a male worker, who claimed that his sexual harassment complaints were dismissed as “horseplay”.
If an employer is going to eradicate sexual harassment from its workplace, more needs to be done, and it starts by accepting that this is not just a problem for HR to handle.
The time has come for executive management to start walking the talk and leading by example. They need to call out poor behaviours and hold everyone to the same standards. Train staff regularly on HR policies, comply with the policy and apply it consistently. You can have the best sexual harassment policy in place, but if the only time it’s rolled out is during employee inductions and it’s not upheld by the senior management team, then it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.
The #MeToo movement has undoubtedly given victims a voice; the confidence to stand up and call out impropriety. But like the humble and ubiquitous sexual harassment policy, it alone is not enough. If the movement is to survive and not divide, we have to take out the gender and the politics, and start a conversation about what behaviours we are willing to accept in our workplaces.
Will the #MeToo movement bring about real change in Australia’s workplaces or will it fall on deaf ears? Only time will tell.