Unlike Taylor Swift, not many women can afford to go to court over $1. We need to make reporting sexual harassment easier for Australian women, writes employment lawyer Cassandra Taylor.
Last week’s news that Taylor Swift won her sexual harassment lawsuit no doubt gave many women across the globe a sense of united vindication. After all, the sad truth is many of us can relate to being sexually harassed in one workplace or another.
We can imagine just how 23-year old Taylor felt four years ago, when the middle-aged radio DJ David Mueller grabbed her backside while they posed for a photo together during a backstage meet-and-greet. We can relate to how she probably felt – a mixture of shock and disgust – and we can well imagine her first instinct to grin, bear it and “shake it off”. However, in my experience as an employment lawyer that’s where the similarities end between the singer and the vast majority of women.
For starters, reporting sexual harassment at work is not always a quick and easy decision. While Taylor immediately reported the incident to her manager and security team, a lot of women delay or decline making a complaint to their employer for fear of putting their jobs in jeopardy. And for good reason.
While it’s unlawful for an employer to victimise a worker for making complaints about sexual harassment or sex discrimination, it’s not uncommon for an employer to pull rank and rush to protect their own interests first. This is particularly true when the harasser has seniority within an organisation – think Amber Harrison and Channel Seven CEO, Tim Worner. Then there’s the case of television journalist, Amy Taueber who was reportedly sacked by Channel Seven just weeks after lodging a sexual harassment complaint.
In contrast, Mueller was immediately sacked after Taylor’s management team reported the incident to his employer. This prompted Mueller to sue Swift, blaming her for his dismissal and seeking $US3 million in damages – and Swift to countersue Mueller for sexual harassment and battery seeking a symbolic $US1. I don’t know about you, but not many women I know can afford to go to court over a dollar.
There are many barriers to women who have been sexually harassed at work achieving so-called “legal justice”. Even those women who find the courage to take the step of lodging an internal complaint with their employer often find that they are unable to have their day in court. For many, the issue is simply that they cannot afford the legal fees.
Even those who decide they can afford it and begin legal proceedings are often unable to see the matter through to a final hearing. Instead, they find themselves opting for a confidential out-of-court settlement for fear of damaging their reputation and stalling their careers.
Another barrier is the impact of sexual harassment on a victim’s health and wellbeing, especially when court litigation can take many years and wear a victim down even further. Just witness the impact of the week-long court hearing on the very well-supported Taylor Swift who broke down during her lawyer’s closing statement.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not having a go at Tay Tay. On the contrary, I believe she is to be commended for taking up the fight and not backing down throughout her four year legal battle. She has spoken up on behalf of countless women who have been let down by a flawed system, and said what so many of us wish we could, including telling Mueller’s lawyer during cross examination, “I’m not going to allow your client to make me feel in any way that this is my fault”.
However, it is imperative that we remember that Taylor’s case is an exception, not the rule. The legal system still has a long way to go in protecting women from harassment at work. As a start, we need a system that provides affordable justice in a shorter time frame. Beyond that, society needs to stop victim-blaming, and employers need to stamp out sexually hostile cultures and take responsibility when harassment occurs in their workplace. I will not be calling Taylor’s win a victory for all working women just yet – but it has shown we still have a long way to go to stop perpetrators and employers thinking they can just shake it off when it comes to sexual harassment.