Sexual harassment derailed my first career. Workplace leaders must take action

Sexual harassment derailed my first career. Workplace leaders must take action

Gender equality should just be the norm. But as many women reading this will know it often takes an incident to give us that extra bit of motivation we need to set us on the path to fighting for true fairness.

For me, it was an experience with sexual harassment early in my working life that has shaped my leadership more than two decades later.

I was in my early 20s when another teacher sexually harassed me. It was significant enough for me to lodge a formal complaint to the principal of the school. The principal encouraged me to drop the complaint, reminded me that I was on contract (code for did not have to be renewed) and recommended I be more circumspect in what I wore.

This was the late ‘90s. I secured a job at another school but, like so many others, I became disillusioned with the profession I had my heart set on from a young girl and I simply left.

I went back to university, completed a Masters degree and retrained. By the time I reached my thirties I had started a family and was working in the Victorian Public Service as a policy advisor. As a mother of two young boys, I found it challenging to find roles offering growth and opportunity that were not full time. When I asked for more flexibility, I was often denied or actively discouraged from applying for roles as they would not accommodate flexible work hours.

My experiences are no different and would be less intense than those experienced by others. I cannot begin to fully understand the pain and disadvantage that intersectionality creates for many people – compounding factors of race, disability, age, socio-economic background.

My hope is that other young women don’t need to have these types of experiences with sexual harassment and discrimination, to be driven to bring about change. It is up to today’s workplace leaders to make sure that happens.

I am proud that at Bass Coast Shire Council in Victoria, my team is helping lead true change that will have immediate and lasting impact on the gender equality of both women and men living in our beautiful region.

We have been the first Council to pay 12 months paid superannuation to mothers following the birth of a child. This ground-breaking policy has benefited both men and women at Council and is known across the sector as the “Bass Coast Clause”.

Another big change we introduced in October was providing 16 weeks paid parental leave to both men and women following the birth or adoption of a child. This has has already been taken up by three male employees.

By paying the same amount of parental leave to both men and women, we have removed the financial reason often faced by families when determining who should stay home and who should return to work. This helps women have choice and continue their careers with less disruption if they so choose.

Two of our outdoor crew have recently become dads for the first time. They were both emotional when they found out they would be financially supported to take 16 weeks parental leave and have that time to bond with his new daughter without the worry of having no, or reduced, income.

Our workplace policy is that flexibility (days, location, hours) is “as of right”. We are an outcomes-focussed organisation and don’t base performance on the amount of hours worked or when the work is done. Since making this change, a number of our people have expressed gratitude in having this progressive policy. Just the other day, one new employee told me she is far more likely to contribute over and above than her last place of employment because she wants to give back to the organisation that invests, and places trust, in her. We are also seeing more applicants for positions as we becoming known as “employer of choice”. This is so important as for many sectors not just local government as the competition to attract and retain qualified and talented people has become fierce.

We also undertake Bystander Awareness Training, where we address gender inequality as the underlying cause of men’s violence towards women. This is provided in partnership with other major employers across Bass Coast including Phillip Island Nature Parks, Westernport Water and Bass Coast Health.

Other key actions that seem obvious BUT which have flown under the radar with the absence of conversation include providing bathrooms for female team members out on site and looking at uniforms/trade clothes for women because, until recently, clothes have been designed for, and by, men.

As part of the 16 Days of Activism in November/December our Infrastructure Maintenance Leadership team, along with our General Manager Resilient Communities, held a focus group with female team members. The feedback shared in regards to the culture was overwhelmingly positive. The focus group felt that they’re treated equally, and are supported by all team members. They feel safe at work and have not experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Our changes are being noticed and we are now attracting more women into traditionally male-dominated roles. Over the past few months we have increased women in our outdoor work depot from two to nine, including the appointment of two female apprentices this month.

We have declared to sporting organisers that if they seek to use Council property to stage their events they must award equal prize money in male and female competitions. The Australian MotoX Championships was the first to partner with us to introduce this important change.

As Chief Executive Officer of a Council in Victoria, I have an opportunity, and responsibility, to address systemic gender inequality through policy change, programs, service delivery and advocacy. I am delighted other Councils and public sector agencies are following our lead. Together, we can make a real difference.

We often hear the statistic that gender equality will not be achieved for at least another 100 years. As leaders we don’t have to make that prediction a reality. Let’s be the change we are all wanting by taking action where we can.

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