New research has shed light on an “insidious” office act that women continue to face at disproportionate rates to their male counterparts.
More than 50,000 Australians recently participated in news.com.au’s Great Aussie Debate survey. Participants answered 50 questions, revealing their opinions on everything from work and politics to whether it’s ever appropriate to wear shorts in the office or use your phone on the loo.
One of the questions asked was whether respondents have ever experienced sexual harassment in the workplace – and the results paint a stark but unsurprising picture.
While 81 per cent of men shared they’d “never” encountered inappropriate conduct, just 44 per cent of women and 43 per cent of nonbinary people could say the same.
Rates of sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women remain “shockingly high in Australia”, Our Watch CEO Patty Kinnersly told news.com.au, “because gender inequality and disrespect persists through our workplaces and broader society”.
“Everyone deserves to be safe, supported and respected at work,” Ms Kinnersly said.
Sixteen per cent of female Great Aussie Debate respondents said they’d experienced sexual harassment at work once (versus eight per cent of men), 24 per cent on between one and three occasions (versus seven per cent of men); and 16 per cent had been subjected to it more than five times (versus three per cent of men).
Women from culturally-diverse backgrounds or who have a disability are even more likely to experience sexual harassment.
The statistics for non-binary respondents tell an equally concerning story – at 13 per cent, 19 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.
Australian Human Rights Commission’s (AHRC) Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Anna Cody, described the issue as a “systemic” one, “driven by power imbalances, the main of which is gender inequality”.
“Sadly, but unsurprisingly, sexual harassment continues to be an unacceptably common feature of Australian workplaces. [It] has far too often been used to exert power over women and LGBTIQ+ people,” Dr Cody told news.com.au.
“A key factor that drives sexual harassment of all people, regardless of their gender, are societal norms, practices and structures that shape – and are shaped by – gender inequality.
“When workplaces support or condone sexual harassment against women or LGBTIQ+ people, levels of sexual harassment are higher.
“When violence against women and LGBTIQ+ is justified, excused or trivialised, and the blame is shifted from the harasser to the victim, this exacerbates an already insidious and systemic problem.”
The distribution of power between men, women and LGBTIQ+ people in the private and public spheres also contributes, Dr Cody said, as does a “strong belief in stereotyped constructions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’”.
A mere 22.3 per cent of CEOS across almost all industries in the Australian workforce are women; 35.1 per cent of key management positions, 34 per cent of board members, and 18 per cent of board chairs, according to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality.
Ms Kinnersly agreed, saying that the “root cause [of workplace sexual harassment] – gender inequality, disrespect and harmful ideas of masculinity” must be targeted to prevent and eradicate the issue.
The incoming amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) – commencing on December 12 – rules that all employers and persons conducting a business or undertaking are subject to a positive duty to take “reasonable and proportionate measures” to eliminate unlawful sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, as far as possible.
“We are at a critical point for growth, and it is urgent that those outdated, previously accepted norms change,” Dr Cody said.
“This [amendment] will create the step change we desperately need … There needs to be a multifaceted and whole-of-community response.
“I am optimistic that the actions currently being taken by governments and workplaces will have an impact, but will take time.”
Workplaces can take “active steps” towards eliminating sexual harassment, Ms Kinnersly advised, “by embedding gender equality and promoting respect in their organisation”.
“This includes removing direct and indirect barriers to women’s success; having equal representation of women and men in senior leadership roles; addressing the gender pay gap; calling out disrespectful behaviour, victim blaming or comments that minimise violence; and having robust and supportive systems for reporting sexual harassment so staff are safe to do so.”