Budget makes sexual harassment start but systemic culture change needed

Budget commitment on sexual harassment a start but systemic culture change is the end game

Tuesday night’s Federal Government budget commitment of $20.6 million to tackle workplace sexual harassment is a step in the right direction, but it does not acknowledge the most important factor in addressing and preventing workplace sexual harassment: culture.

A fundamental truth that we can all agree on is that we all have a right to be safe at work. While each employee has personal responsibility to safety, it is up to the employer to make sure they have done all they reasonably can to make that workplace safe.

When an employer takes on a positive duty to safety, it creates a safety culture. So important is this cultural aspect to safety that we enshrine it in our various occupation health and safety laws and have regulatory bodies with powers to enforce serious punitive measures on workplaces that do not comply.

Under the safety culture driven by our workplace laws, employees are actively encouraged to report safety concerns, they are actively supported to do so, even anonymously, and their concerns are measured and tracked by employer leadership.

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, the levers that drive and constantly reinforce positive employer duty are not fit for purpose. This was one of the starkest findings in the Australian Human Rights Commissions, Respect@Work report released more than a year ago.  It is why the Commission recommended that the Sex Discrimination Act be amended to include positive duties on the employer to do all we reasonable and practically can to eliminate sex discrimination, harassment and victimisation.  The Commission also recommended that they be given the powers to assess compliance and enforce compliance breaches.

These two recommendations provide an important legal and regulatory basis upon which to build workplace cultures free from sexual harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately, the Government has not advanced these two recommendations. As a leader of an organisation, I appreciate their reticence, because this type of change is hard. All regulatory and legislative change is hard, but that should not be a deterrent to action. 

Australian workers, and particularly women and other people who are suffering or are at risk of suffering discrimination and harassment in their workplaces need the Morrison Government to stand behind these two recommendations. By doing so, the Government is signalling to all Australian workplaces, including their own, that now is the time for positive culture change. In tackling legislative and regulatory reforms, Australia will be taking a big step towards systemic culture change to eliminate sexual harassment in our workplaces.  

Dr Jenny Gray is President of Not in My Workplace, a not for profit organisation dedicated to eliminating workplace sexual harassment.

She will appear at the Respect@Work Summit in Canberra on 21 June 2021.

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