Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame’s courageous story telling has ignited a fire within all of us who are working hard to shift societal and workplace attitudes to ensure safety and respect at work for everyone. This fire will not be extinguished by talk – only by action. So how do we move from talk to action – what are the actions we can take as leaders in our own organisation TODAY?

In this blog I explore the current context and attempt to provide you with links to useful resources and a clear pathway to action.

What’s the current context?

In 2019, a ground breaking National Inquiry was completed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and the resulting Respect@Work Report recommends a new approach to the prevention and reporting of sexual harassment.  It also outlines the context in which sexual harassment occurs and the opportunities for improvement in the current legal and regulatory framework.

Respect@Work found that gender inequality is the key power disparity that drives sexual harassment, both in the workplace and more broadly in society. While sexual harassment is widespread and pervasive across Australian workplaces, with 39% of women and 26% of men experiencing sexual harassment, the report found that fewer than one in five victims made a formal complaint.

Since Respect@Work was published we have had very public allegations of sexual harassment, and 100,000 people take part in theMarch4Justice movement calling for the government to stand up against  prevailing sexism, misogyny and gendered violence in Australia.

In April 2021, the Federal Government formally responded to the recommendation in Respect@Work. The Prime Minister announced that the government would accept all of the report’s 55 recommendations “wholly, in part, or in principle” through its “roadmap to respect”. This certainly heralds a positive start to the change required in our legislative framework. There is at least commitment to removing the astounding, gaping hole in excluding particular vocations from coverage and protection of the Sex Discrimination Act.

Parliament subject to the same workplace rules

Parliament House will be subject to the same duties as an employer and workplace under the new laws as will Judges and State public servants – a no brainer really, one would think. Another positive is that the Fair Work definition of serious misconduct will be amended to include sexual harassment. Serious misconduct will now also be listed as a valid reason for termination, meaning proven sexual harassers can be fired for abuse.

On the downside though, changes proposed do not include amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to put the onus on employers to actively prevent sexual harassment, with the Attorney-General stating that positive duty for employers already exists under work health and safety laws. This area of positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment looks like it could be quite a difficult area of law to navigate and gain alignment across relevant pieces of legislation – we will need to watch this space.

So what does all this mean for you and your organisation?

If you are an employer or a people leader then you will understand that sexual harassment presents risk of significant cost through lost productivity, staff turnover, negative impact on workplace culture, and resources associated with responding to complaints, not to mention the potential for reputational damage.

Respect@Work concluded that the current, reactive, complaints-based approach by employers has not been effective in reducing sexual harassment and identified seven areas in which workplaces should shift to an approach of positive action and focus on prevention. This approach requires leaders to think proactively, not reactively, and to ask these important questions.

To prevent workplace sexual harassment, ask yourself these four questions:

  1. Does our leadership display behaviour that contributes to cultures that prevent workplace sexual harassment?
  2. Do we have a strong focus on risk assessment and transparency to mitigate the risk it can pose to our business?
  3. Do we have a culture based on trust and respect that minimises the risk of sexual harassment and ensure it is managed adequately? – how to we assess this?
  4. How do we ensure knowledge in our workforce through education and training?

To better respond to sexual harassment, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. How well do we prioritise support of workers’ wellbeing before and after reporting?
  2. How can we increase reporting options available to workers and address barriers to reporting?
  3. How can we improve our understanding of the nature, prevalence and impacts of sexual harassment through measuring and collecting data?

AGEC had the pleasure of hosting a webinar with Kate Jenkins outlining the practical actions individual can take and we have identified some key questions to ask and some simple tools to use to get started in your workplace, whatever your role.

What other resources are available?

Just last month the Australian Human Rights Commission, in partnership with the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI), released a new report offering guidance to corporate boards and investors on preventing and responding to workplace sexual harassment. The report makes six recommendations for boards and executive leaders, including that boards demonstrate visible leadership and governance over workplace culture, sexual harassment and gender equality; that directors and executive management have the skills and experience to effectively prevent and respond to sexual harassment; and that boards make gender equality a strategic priority backed by gender diversity targets. You can read Equality across the Board here.

If you are not an executive or director in a position of power you can positively influence action as a team member – there are a number of questions you can be respectfully asking your employer to help inspire action. Access AGEC’s tools to help you get started.

Our call to action?

Make a start in your own backyard today.

Whether you are a leader, an individual contributor or an advisor make sure you are asking the right questions and moving to action as a result of the answers. Preventing and addressing workplace sexual harassment requires a nation-wide effort and whole-of-society support and AGEC can help you.

So let’s all get on with it.

Louise Weine
Board Member – Australian Gender Equality Council
National Director – National Association of Women in Operations