Sexual harassment at work? We all have stories & it's time they're told

Harassed, abused, assaulted at work? We all have stories & it’s time they’re told

I had dinner recently with a group of friends when someone confessed she was feeling increasingly angry about something that had happened at work a few years ago. She is married to a friend of mine and I hadn’t known her well at the time this occurred.

She was working in an ultra male-dominated field: in the large, national organisation she was one of only two women in a team of 50 across all of Australia. It was very blokey but she loved the work and said she was quietly determined to make it.

Why shouldn’t women be in these roles, she thought?

She was used to inappropriate jokes and innuendo and had always brushed it off. But when some of her work colleagues got wind of a new boyfriend being on the scene it became less comfortable. It was harder to ignore.

The final straw was turning up to work after a long weekend and discovering her desk covered in condoms packets and photos they had printed of her boyfriend.

She didn’t make a formal complaint or make a big deal out of it. She knew a reaction was what they wanted. Later that day though, privately, she cried and realised she wasn’t willing to ‘prove’ herself as a stayer among the guys. What was the point?

A few months later she resigned. She didn’t say anything about the incident or the culture or the fact that she wasn’t leaving because she didn’t like the job or the sector or wasn’t up to it. She left and says they all assumed it was because she was going to get married and have babies.

And now, two years on, she is regretting not challenging that. Why didn’t she speak up, she asked.

The answer is because the culture that made her want to leave was unlikely to be receptive to any complaint. She knew that. In all likelihood having a conversation about the things that made her uncomfortable would have been fraught without much upside. Saying nothing was easier.

Hers is one story. A drop in the ocean. She wasn’t assaulted or propositioned or blackmailed but she was, ultimately, a victim of sexual harassment. She left a job she loved because she felt so uncomfortable it wasn’t worth staying.

How many other women have done the same?

The Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins is determined to find out. The national inquiry into sexual harassment at work is now seeking submissions from individuals and organisations across the country about their experiences with a  problem that is far too prevalent.

“We are at a turning point in our community where there is a very strong appetite for change,” Jenkins says. “Everyone has a right to be safe in the workplace and we must continue working to create a society where sexual harassment is no longer considered part of the workplace experience.”

The inquiry will not be investigating individual allegations of harassment but it is time for all of us to tell our stories. To make submissions about any and every incidence of harassment we have endured in workplaces.

We don’t need to fight defensive employers or hostile bosses or unconvinced HR managers that misconduct happened, that it was unsolicited, that it wasn’t misinterpreted, that it wasn’t acceptable.

We just need to tell our stories. This is our opportunity to be heard. To have this problem recognised and then, hopefully, managed better. Prevented. Responded to effectively.

We all have stories. #MeToo is proof of it and now we have a platform for them to be heard and counted. Make yourself heard.

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