I was eight the first time I came into contact with sexual harassment in the workplace.
My mum’s close friend had come over, unannounced and clearly shaken. I was quickly ushered to bed, but my curiosity at her obvious distress led me to press my ear up to the door, listening to their hushed conversation.
What I heard made my stomach flip.
Her boss, and her co-worker, had cornered her in the bathroom.
They did not knock. They did not apologise. They sneered and ogled. They waited for her to finish, despite her protests. And they followed her out of the bathroom and back into the café, where she resumed serving the customers they had neglected during their harassment.
At that age, I did not have the maturity to understand what had happened, but was old enough to fear the idea of it happening to me in the future.
Now, more than a decade later, I understand what happened that day in the café.
I also understand that nothing about this story is unique.
This story is not just echoed through the dish washing stations in small town cafes, and it is not confined to the closed doors of million-dollar hotel suites that are Harvey Weinstein’s for the night. This culture exists in every industry, at every level, and affects everyone — from those who experience it first hand, to their family, friends and co-workers.
And today, I am here to say; no more.
This ends with me.
I am 20 years old. I am in the last year of my university degree. I have always wanted to work in the media industry; but in the wake of Australia’s #metoo movement, I am not so sure.
I am not too sure if it is safe for me to work in any industry.
This has to end now. And it will end now. We have a new generation of young people entering the workforce. People beginning their careers. People who never have to know the terror that so many people before us have experienced.
Australia’s next generation of workers are the most highly educated bunch we have ever seen. We are savvy, worldly and aware of our rights. We have all the information in the world at our fingertips. We have always had a platform to be heard.
For years, women have whispered. We have swapped notes on the men in our workplaces, men that we all knew to avoid. Mentoring programs have been established for young women like me, under the guise of helping me to get the best start in my career. They do this, of course; but they also serve as a way for the women who have come before us, to warn us about what is to come. About who to stay away from. About what happened to them when they stayed late that one night to finish a report. These mentoring programs do not exist to spread fear; they exist to protect us.
My own mentor has warned me about the men in my chosen industry. She has told me to come to her immediately if anything ever happens. Silent protection networks exist everywhere, but it is in their silence that they fail to protect everyone.
My mum’s friend had no option but to work in that café; she had finished school but had not gone on to further education. She was a single mother, who received little support from her ex-husband. This was the only job available in our small town that allowed her enough flexibility to care for her child and earn a wage, allowing them to eat. She went back to work the next day. She had to.
The reality is, there is no industry free from this harassment and discrimination. Until NOW, there was nowhere to go.
Everyone, in every workplace in Australia, has a right to feel safe. Not just my generation; all the people before me and all the people to come. We will not be scared, intimidated and ignored any longer.
We will be supported. We will be heard. We will stop this behaviour. We have an opportunity to see a whole new generation of Australia’s workforce move through their careers with their dignity, and their safety, intact.
This is a pivotal moment in our history. Finally, people are listening, and survivors are speaking out. We cannot let this opportunity pass; I won’t allow it. NOW Australia is here, and we have one mission in mind: to end the toxic culture of sexual harassment in Australia’s entire workplace.
Abby Alexander is a founding member of NOW Australia, aiming to end sexual harassment, abuse and intimidation in workplaces.