40% of women sexually harassed at work: it needs to stop now

40% of women sexually harassed at work: it needs to stop now

workplace
An alarming Human Rights Commission report tabled in parliament this week has found that almost 40 per cent of women (rising to 53 per cent for indigenous women), have been sexually harassed at work over the past five years.

Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, says the report, Respect@Work, found that workplace sexual harassment is “widespread and pervasive”. She has recommended 55 wide-sweeping changes to how employers’ deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. Read about the 55 recommendations here

Jenkins says that Australia was once “at the forefront of tackling sexual harassment globally”, but now “lags behind other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment”. The tabling of the report comes as the incidences of violence against women, including the recent death of mother of three, Hannah Clarke.

“There is urgency for change,” Jenkins said, releasing her recommendations. “There is momentum for reform.”

Women bear the brunt of sexual harassment at work, with almost 40 per cent reporting experiencing it over the past five years. More than a quarter of the men surveyed also experienced being sexually harassed in that time.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women were the most likely to be sexually harassed at work, with 53 per cent claiming to have experienced harassment in the workplace over the past five years.

One recommendation includes a similar measure to the anti-bullying regime in the Fair Work Act, where the commissioner can deliver detailed order about how employees should interact. The power to issue a “stop sexual harassment order” would provide employers and employees to address harassment immediately and the commissioner could also be given broader powers to investigate specific cases of alleged harassment.

South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria enacted anti-discrimination laws based on sex in the late 1970s. In 1984 the Sex Discrimination Act was enacted, prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace. But Jenkins says the rate of change in workplaces has been “disappointingly slow” in the 35 years since the Act was enacted.

In the past 17 years, the Australian Human Rights Commission has conducted four periodic surveys on the experience of sexual harassment.

Jenkins says she delivers the report with a “sense of urgency and hope”, but she believes Australia “wants to change”.

“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.

“Workplace sexual harassment is not inevitable. It is not acceptable. It is preventable,” Jenkins says.

Jenkins says the current legal and regulatory system is “simply no longer fit for purpose”. She has recommended a complete overhaul of the outdated model, which will “improve the coordination, consistency and clarity between the anti-discrimination, employment and work health and safety legislative schemes”. The new model, Jenkins says, is evidence-based and “victims focused”.

The new model will require transparency from all employers, and calls from a shift from a reaction model to a pro-active model.

“Ultimately, a safe and harassment-free workplace is a productive workplace,” Jenkins says.

The Diversity Council urges Government to “properly resource” the recommendations

Speaking to Women’s Agenda, Diversity Council Australia Chief Executive Lisa Annese says that while she strongly supports the report, its recommendations, if enacted, must be properly resourced.

“To see action this must be properly resourced and we are not sure how that is going to be achieved yet,” she said. “To see action, it needs to have the resources behind it to educate employers.

DCA also says it is crucial that the Federal Government includes sexual harassment as an area of action under the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women.

“We support changes to the Sex Discrimination Act…including making clear that the purpose of the Act is to support gender equality,” Annese said.

“However, it needs to be said that these progressive reforms are at loggerheads with the Government’s proposals for the religious discrimination bills – which erode discrimination protections for groups of people including women and the LGBTQI+ community. It will be interesting to see how these two things work, side-by-side.”

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