More action is needed to deal with workplace sexual harassment

By Portner Press on March 11th, 2019
  1. Bullying, Harassment & Discrimination
  2. Sexual harassment in the workplace


Australia is failing to deal with workplace sexual harassment.

Despite health and safety regulators having laws and powers in place to address this systemic problem, there is still very little being done about it.

That’s the view of more than 100 organisations that have endorsed a joint statement Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) submitted to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s national inquiry into sexual harassment at work.

The VLA says that victims of sexual harassment tell them that the system is failing to stop sexual harassment from occurring and meaningfully address it when it does.

In the executive summary of its submission, Change the Culture, Change the System: Urgent Action needed to End Sexual Harassment at Work, the VLA quotes two of its clients:

“I felt like the process was a battle and afterwards I didn’t have anything left in me to keep pursuing my rights. I felt depleted. I was unable to obtain any outcome and in the end I just let the matter go” (Fiona).

“As a result of the harassment, I was diagnosed with depression and I ended my relationship with my boyfriend because I developed a distrust of men. I did not have the emotional resources or social supports needed to go to court and fight my employer, so I settled my claim for a small pay out rather than taking the case further. I felt like there were no consequences for the harasser” (Alice).

Melanie Schleiger, Program Manager of Equality Law at Victoria Legal Aid, says “We can no longer rely on individuals to deal with sexual harassment alone”.

“Work health and safety agencies should help employers to create environments that discourage sexual harassment and hold them accountable when they fail to do so. Employers must be legally required to take proactive steps to prevent harassment and face penalties for failing to do so.

“At the moment even a successful complaint from a victim almost never leads to meaningful change in their workplace, that would stop future harassment from happening,” she says.

The VLA says the following five reforms will change the culture and system of workplace sexual harassment:

1. Address the causes of sexual harassment

83% of VLA clients in the last three years have been women and the majority of sexual harassment is perpetrated by men. It says gender inequality in the workplace, as well as traditional views about the roles of men and women in society are an underlying cause of this.

Sexual harassment is most prevalent in male-dominated workplaces and insecure work arrangements.

“Governments should invest in dedicated primary prevention efforts to address the underlying gendered drivers of sexual harassment. These efforts should be part of a holistic strategy to prevent violence against women and promote gender equality,” the submission suggests.

2. Employers and regulators must do more to prevent sexual harassment

The VLA says employers need clearer education and guidance about their legal requirements to take steps to prevent sexual harassment from occurring and, when they fail to do so, regulators must take action.

Human rights commissions must also have sufficient power and resources to investigate and enforce compliance with anti-discrimination laws.

3. Create fairer complaints systems

The submission suggests changes to the law, including the Fair Work Act (FW Act), to better protect victims who raise sexual harassment concerns against backlashes and victimisation at work.

Unlike discrimination protections, the FW Act in its current state does not “expressly protect employees from sexual harassment”.

“In our practice experienced employers have a much stronger understanding of their obligations under the FW Act than they do of their obligations under anti-discrimination law,” the submission states.

4. Better psychological support for victims

While counselling support services are available for victims of sexual assault, services for people who experience sexual harassment are limited.

The VLA calls for “well-resourced support services to help victims recover from the harm caused by sexual harassment”.

5. Help people speak up about sexual harassment

Most workplace sexual harassment goes unreported, with only one in five victims making an official complaint.

The submission states this is for many reasons, including a fear of not being believed, concerns about retaliation and a worry about the impact it could have on the victim’s career and reputation.

“An accessible and confidential online reporting tool that helps people to report problem behaviour and seek help could encourage more people to speak up when they experience sexual harassment,” the VLA says.

Are you sure you have done all you can to prevent sexual harassment occurring in your workplace?

In our eBook Managing Sexual Harassment we show you everything you must do to identify and prevent workplace sexual harassment.

Find out more.


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