Ease the burden on women: Employers must take responsibility for sexual harassment at work

Ease the burden on women: Employers must take responsibility for preventing sexual harassment at work

Stubborn cultural norms have prevented the full expression of women's legal rights, writes Law Graduate Taylah Spirovski. Proposed amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act can help change that.
sexual harassment at work

The cultural and structural reach of patriarchal dominance has perpetuated large and vast amounts of violence against women throughout the ages.

Sexual harassment, while being the most habitual and familiar, has slid below the world’s radar under the guise of what’s commonly accepted as the unavoidable reality of sexism.

On 8 April 2021, the Australian Government published their Roadmap for Respect – a response to all 55 of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s recommendations outlined in the Respect@Work report, which has been collecting dust for fifteen months since it’s publication.

To say that Australia lags behind comparative OECD countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment is a flagrant understatement. The 2018 National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces revealed that approximately 85% of Australian women 15 years and older have at some point in their lives experienced sexual harassment and of those, one in three people experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years.

Why men and women are not coplanar in the 21st century

The lack of a strong impetus for change and commitment to impactful legislative and regulatory reform up until this point tells a story with a long history.

This story, like the lives of many women, is one riddled by discrimination and inequality, by which women have been marked as subversives that sit outside the normal legal order.

Simone de Beauvoir demonstrated that this is because women are governed by a system that only allows them to orbit society’s circles as the other – only at all relevant and defined as they are ‘relative to man’ (The Second Sex). This duality, the self (man) and the other (woman), as we see in gendered language, curriculums, professions, networks and all else, has sustained gender inequality throughout time and in the 21st century. Yet alongside it, women have fought and forged their own paths, as the autonomous and multifaceted beings they are, despite a myriad of discriminatory hurdles along the way.

Sexual harassment at work – in theory and in practice

Most Australian States enacted anti-discrimination laws in the late 1970s, followed by a Federal Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, echoing the outcomes of unity, resistance and perseverance. However, contemporary statistics have shown that despite this formal equality, women are still in dire straits.

In order to break into traditionally male-dominated spaces, women must accept being denounced as the other, and accept to live and work in structures that perpetuate the violations of their rights. Violations that occur not only by sexual harassment and assault, but through the gender pay gap, gender roles, discriminatory hiring and promotion processes, inadequate paid parental leave and more.

The long harboured and deep-rooted power imbalance among women and men is the pretext which explains how a women’s employment setting, already precarious, can quickly transform into an unwanted sexual encounter in its many forms. Women are in spaces, even those at the highest levels of government and private practice, where they are still struggling to establish their credibility, all while living very real and imminent threats of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment runs rampant in a range of industries and can be rationalised by a concept known as the ‘sex role spillover’, as it was proposed in unique models by Barbara Gutek. It describes the way some men, through a ‘traditional lens’, view their female colleagues – ‘as women first and work role occupants second’. In other words, the biased sentiments of women and their role in society carry over into the workplace, creating a breeding ground for sexual harassment and other absurdities. Women are often viewed, first and foremost, as objects of sexual derision – unable to escape the male gaze despite their excessive, active efforts to censor their work approach, language, etiquette and dress (things they should by no means be doing in the first place).

Agitating for the bare minimum

In the abstract, most of our rights are legally reconigsed, but culture has prevented their full expression in the social mores. As many high-profile cases have demonstrated, options of legal redress for women who experience sexual harassment are a false sense of security. Those who choose to litigate these matters, in any capacity, are exhausting themselves personally and financially amid risking their professional progression.

Of the 55 recommendations, number 17 is particularly important – amending the Sex Discrimination Act to impose a positive duty on all employers to ‘take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and victimisation, as far as possible’.

Why? Because humanity is a virtue and it owes you safety and respect.

It is the responsibility of regulators and employers to ensure the burden of preventing and reducing sexual harassment at work is removed from victims’ shoulders and placed on their own. It is regulators and employers that should be relied on to educate, facilitate complaint-making and enforce retributive penalties for unlawful conduct – not women.

Together we rise

Lastly and most importantly, every challenge described above is exacerbated for Blak women, queer women, disabled women, migrant women, women of low socio-economic background and others who haven’t any power, privilege or opportunities to be heard.  

Women deserve better and together, our unique voices will see through the common cause that delivers better.  

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