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Systemic Harassment: A Look Inside Australian Workplaces

While serious allegations of sexual misconduct and rape has been sprawled across the news recently, it is a theme that unfortunately is not new, and not uncommon.
In order to understand the seriousness of the situation some men and women can be victims to, we need to be able to have uncomfortable conversations and expose the oppressive behaviour that weighs heavily over them, but more importantly understand why it is happening and what we can do to protect employees.

Ideally, sexual misconduct should not be commonplace, however “Workplace sexual harassment is prevalent and pervasive: it occurs in every industry, in every location and at every level in Australian workplaces.” – Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces 2020.

This is particularly rampant for women. According to Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, approximately 1 in 3 workers in 2018 had experienced sexual harassment in the last five years.

The College of Law in Sydney held an audience with Ms Jenkins in February this year, which provided a valuable perspective on practical ways that we can work together to stamp out sexual harassment, particularly in the legal profession. She explained that Australia’s recent national inquiry was propelled by the widespread #metoo movement. This movement highlights the importance of sexual harassment training and awareness being targeted at people in positions of power, rather than focusing on employees as we have done in the past. Due to the often systemic nature of workplace sexual harassment.

Ms Jenkins emphasised that a “top-down” approach is more effective in dealing with the often systemic nature of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The legal profession by nature can often act as a breeding ground for sexual harassment. As Ms Jenkins explained, law firms are commonly hierarchal, with men in the majority of senior roles. The job involves long hours, social events and an environment where your reference from a superior is critical for career progression. Hence, a significant power disparity emerges which makes it easy for sexual harassment to occur, and difficult for victims to feel empowered to speak up.

Alongside better training at a management level and anonymous reporting to gain systemic trend information, the Respect@Work report recommends three broad regime changes to the legal and regulatory framework. These are:

  1. Amending the Sex Discrimination Act (1984), and its State and Territory equivalents, to shift the responsibility from employees having to raise complaints onto employers to actively prevent sexual harassment from occurring.
  1. Utilising the Work Health and Safety Act (2011) more than previously, including new guidance provided by Safe Work Australia.
  1. Updating the Fair Work Act (2009) to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as implementing the same idea as a ‘stop bullying order’ for circumstances of sexual harassment.

A continued focus on improving the way in which we deal with sexual harassment on a domestic level willhopefully mitigate consequences such as high staff turnover, negative workplace culture and reputational damage to individuals and businesses. Ultimately, sexual harassment awareness training needs to be targeted towards managers to allow a positive workplace culture to flow through all levels of the organisation.

A Human Agency have the extensive experience to help businesses navigate times of challenging employee retentions and create preventative approaches. By deep diving into organisational culture, A Human Agency sets businesses up to thrive.


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