Building a future of work free from sexual harassment

Building a future of work free from sexual harassment

sexual harassment
An unlikely collection of leaders and change agents from across the public, community and private sectors, came together in Sydney yesterday for a landmark summit setting the agenda for action to end workplace sexual harassment.

Attendees at the Not In My Workplace Summit heard from leaders from across media, military, tech, entertainment, sport, legal services, venture capital, retail, corporate, government, and public sectors – all sharing deep insights on the reality of the problem and the actions being taken to tackle it.

As summit host and gender equality advocate Nicola Hazell pointed out, most of the speakers would rarely, if ever, find themselves sharing a stage. They come from very different industries, with different workforces and different workplace cultures.

But a shared goal brought this disparate group together: a goal of inclusion, respect, and safety.  A goal to end workplace sexual harassment.

With more than 20 world-class speakers on the program, it was a BIG day with a lot of information and inspiration to soak up.

Here are the key learnings that got us thinking…

This problem is HUGE

Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, opened the Summit by outlining the current workplace landscape, sharing highlights from her world-first National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in the Workplace which has involved 60 consultations across the country with 460 submissions.

While over 70% of Australians have been sexually harassed in the past five years, current workplace norms often don’t empower people to safely lodge complaints or report problems.

The result? Only 17% of people impacted by sexual harassment actually make a complaint, and when they do, they have little faith in their workplace to create a positive outcome.

Despite the harrowing statistics and shocking stories of sexual harassment curbing the career dreams of many young women in particular, the Commissioner found that for many workplaces this is an issue still being swept under the carpet.

The Inquiry’s full report will be released in February 2020 with the findings set to clearly demonstrate that ending sexual harassment is #EveryonesBusiness – impacting all ages, genders and industries.

Leadership sets the tone

Almost all speakers acknowledged the key role of leadership teams in setting workplace culture. If leaders don’t directly address sexual harassment in their workplace, the rate of sexual harassment at work won’t change.

CEO of Cicada Innovations, Sally-Ann Williams suggested leaders need to ensure they take ownership of these issues and lean in to conversations on change, rather than leaving it to the people and culture team (as it’s a given that they will be involved).

Tiffany Slater, General Manager at the National Rugby League (NRL), said action from a collective of industry leaders can drive a wider conversation across our society. She outlined how shifting attitudes towards women within sporting culture can have flow on effects for the whole community. She spoke about the importance of direct action on sexual harassment and assault (such as the NRL’s no-fault stand down policy for players facing criminal charges) alongside proactive cultural change efforts achieved through the promotion of and investment in the women’s game, driving greater equality for women in sport across all sporting codes.

We need more women at the top

Not surprisingly, there was fierce agreement among speakers that improving the ratio of women in leadership is a key factor in building safer, more inclusive workplaces.

Seven West Chief People & Culture Officer, Katie McGrath, shared her personal passion for shifting the culture in the media industry around sexual harassment from one focused on litigation to one focused on conversation and compassion. She said she had seen a direct impact from the recent increases in the number of women at the decision making table, resulting in a more proactive and compassionate response to sexual harassment cases. Her insights aligned with Kate Jenkins findings that in general, staff with women leaders received a more positive and supportive response when reporting sexual harassment than those who took their claims to male managers.

Check your data

The national stats on sexual harassment paint a pretty stark picture, and yet many speakers pointed to a common defence provided by organisations claiming “we don’t have a high number of cases.”

NSW Acting Public Service Commissioner Scott Johnston said it’s incumbent on organisations to dig into their data and ask if it’s really telling the whole story.

The Commission – which oversees a workforce of more than 400,000 NSW public sector workers – has found through internal staff surveys that sexual harassment reports are not reflective of the real number of cases due to gross underreporting. Scott Johnston said organisations must spend time truly understanding the problem and be transparent about what’s going on under the surface of their data.

It’s all about power

There are power dynamics in the workplace that frequently influence sexual harassment incidents. The global #MeToo movement has cast a light on the actions of powerful men across media, entertainment, health and wellness industries and how their abuse of power has impacted on the vulnerable women.

Award-winning Actor Michala Banas, who has recently trained as an Intimacy Coordinator, said power dynamics can have a huge impact on young actors in film, television and theatre. Even then, she pointed out the need to avoid making assumptions on how people perceive their own power. She said while people generally know when they’re not in a position of power, it seems for some people in leadership positions, it can be easy to forget the influence and power they have over others. She said having someone who can point out why their behaviour is not ok and provide the chance to share new perspectives can be an important part of creating safer spaces for everyone.

This is a key part of her new role as an Intimacy Coordinator – providing support and guidance for actors, directors and producers on set to make the creation of intimate scenes a safer and clearer experience for everyone involved.

I act as a buffer and a bystander and can handle any concerns confidentially as people fear the fallout of complaining.”

This shift to create more psychological safety in the entertainment industry has taken time, collaboration and initiative from people in the industry to convince others of the need for this independent support role – of which Michala is one of only three trained coordinators in Australia.

It starts with a conversation

Many of the speakers acknowledged that driving deep cultural change is hard, but that it all starts with bringing the issue into the open to discuss what sexual harassment means, how it impacts productivity, inclusion and positivity in the workplace, and how everyone can play a role in preventing it.

Assistant Director at the MATE bystander program, Anoushka Dowling, explained that everyone has a sphere of influence and a responsibility to try to be aware of their impact on others. Often people are worried about getting things wrong but obstacles need to be acknowledged to be overcome. Anoushka used the example of fire safety training, pointing out that while training is delivered once a year, not everyone would know how to deal with complex scenarios in their everyday.

Kate Jenkins emphasised the impact of creating safe spaces during the Inquiry to make it acceptable to discuss the issues surrounding bullying and sexual harassment. Kate acknowledged that everyone is all at different points of their journey of awareness and when we create safe spaces (sometimes with rooms of men only or women only), we allow those people to more freely express themselves, be open to learning and sharing their personal experiences.

Major General Simone Wilkie AO acknowledged that creating a culture of change in the Australia Defence Force has been a hard and challenging process, but that using scenario based training and driving consistent and regular conversations about behaviour, consent and respect, progress had been made.

As culture evolves, people often need someone external to let them know that they should think more about what or how they’re communicating as they might be seeming offensive. Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer and Partner at PwC Australia, Julie McKay, shared an easy question you can ask to get clarification in non confrontational way: “Can you tell me what you mean by that?”

It’s about people first (not paperwork)

Kate Jenkins said that there needs to be a shift away from simply considering the legal implications of an incident to instead thinking about the people involved first. The legal system protects people from being unfairly dismissed, but it often doesn’t protect the victim from ongoing trauma as an incident is investigated.

Belong’s Ben Burge said it’s about trading risks; so instead of focusing on the risk of unfair dismissal, he focuses on the risk of psychological damage and loss of trust that can be felt by an employee if a leader fails to act.

Airtree Ventures Partner Helen Norton echoed the importance of action to back up any policies or processes you put in place. The Model Code of Conduct established by Australian VCs, led by Samantha Wong at Blackbird Ventures, is an example of a policy on paper that is effective only because it is embedded in the actions of VCs and other startup ecosystem players such as co-working spaces and accelerator programs. Sally Ann Williams pointed to the standard practice to refer to the code of conduct at the opening of any event held at coworking space Fishburners, as a reminder of the expectation that must be upheld by all attendees to create a safe and inclusive environment.

If you want to create an inclusive community, it’s not about governance, it’s about what you do behind the scenes every day.” – Sally-Ann Williams

Change is coming

Many of the speakers at the summit emphasised what dire circumstances Australia is in at the moment in relation to sexual harassment in the workplace, but there’s still hope and some organisations are taking action to implement new policies, support leaders and managers, and train staff to raise awareness.

Kate Jenkins reflected that although she’s been working in the gender equality space for a long time, she’s still learning through new conversations happening now.

There’s now many resources available about creating an inclusive workplace culture including Joan Westernberg’s Transgender Incluson policy and Startup Creative’s suggestions for LGBTQI+ in the workplace inclusion. Kate and her team at the Human Rights Commission have developed a Conversation Toolkit as part of the inquiry and emphasised that engaging men in the conversation is really important.

Julie McKay summarised the summit by asking attendees to make a commitment to action. Julie posed the question, “Imagine if leaders who have said they are fatigued about discussing sexual harassment in the workplace had said this about something like safety training. We’re not allowed to be fatigued about safety, so why should we accept this concern about fatigue on diversity and inclusion?”

The short answer is, we shouldn’t.

Sign up to be notified when the National Inquiry report is released in February 2020 which will provide recommendations for employees, leaders, workplaces, media and communities to enact.

Are you experiencing an emergency?
If so, please dial 000 now.

Do you need support or advice?
If so, please contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

This hotline is staffed by trauma-informed counsellors who can provide 24-hour support for people impacted by sexual assault and abuse.

Do you need legal information or advice?
If so, please contact Justice Connect.

The Australian Human Right’s Commission’s National Information Service also provides information on sexual harassment. Please call 1300-656-419 or (02) 9284 988. However, the AHRC is unable to give you legal advice because it handles complaints.

Do you want to make a complaint?

If so, please contact the Australian Human Right’s Commission (AHRC).

However, the AHRC advises you to seek legal advice before making a complaint. If you are considering making a complaint, we suggest you to contact Justice Connect to see if you are eligible for free legal assistance.

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