By Rolf Howard, Managing Partner, Owen Hodge Lawyers
Exposing and addressing sexual harassment is rapidly becoming a global phenomenon with the rise of #metoo and the Time’s Up initiatives sweeping across all industries. In this recent climate where anti-harassment is front and centre, Australian employers have been warned to make sure their sexual harassment policies are overhauled and fixed, otherwise it may end up costing them dearly.
Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, a growing number of workplace harassment victims have come forward with their own #metoo stories. It marks an important shift in the changing cultural attitudes. However, when it comes to workplace harassment it can still be difficult for an individual to come forward with accusations – especially when the accused is (as they often are) a high ranking person within the organisation.
Many wonder what implications this will have for the Australian workforce and whether the attitudes of HR and sexual harassment within the workplace will change, and whether the momentum of #metoo and Time’s Up will lead to permanent change within the Australian Workforce.
Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces
Sexual harassment in Australian workplaces has been a consistent issue that organisations need to pay particular attention to. Despite the recent #metoo allegations focusing on high profile industries such as politics, entertainment and media, sexual harassment occurs across all industries.
In a 2012 survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission into workplace sexual harassment it was indicated that:
- 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men had been sexually harassed in the workplace in the past 5 years.
- Nearly 4 out of 5 harassers were men. Ninety per cent of women were harassed by a man, and sixty-one percent of men said that they were harassed by a man.
However, in light of the recent wave of allegations many individuals familiar with the legalities of workplace sexual harassment believe that this is hopefully a turning point. There are three main reasons why the current momentum to call out and condemn harassment is helpful for change:
- It informs people of the true nature and prevalence of sexual harassment in our workplace and communities.
- It educates more people about the harm and cost of sexual harassment.
- It shines a light on the silence surrounding sexual harassment.
Historically, too many people did not understand what constitutes sexual harassment and its impacts, which contributed to a global community which tolerated this kind of unacceptable behaviour.
Why do people get away with it?
It has been uncovered that many of the high profile people who have been exposed for sexual harassment were known to be sleazy. Many ask why did the perpetrator get away with this behaviour for so long if it was known behaviour?
A key part of preventing sexual harassment within the workplace is a greater awareness of what drives and feeds it. Research done by the Australian Human Rights Commission shows that gender inequality and community attitudes about women and their roles in society contributes significantly. This is also compounded by gender inequality – the result of the unequal power distribution between men and woman – and is reinforced by gender discrimination and structures that perpetuate inequality.
This gender inequality is especially commonplace in Australian workplaces. We see this present itself in the underrepresentation of women in leadership and decision-making roles in Australia, with just 11 female CEOs in the ASX 200. We also see this universally across all workplaces, with men primarily in positions of power.
What can be done about it?
With #metoo at the forefront of everybody’s minds, there are a number of things that workplaces need to do to address this.
- Firstly, promoting gender equality within the workplace, such as more women in leadership roles.
- Secondly, there needs to be a solid organisational culture within the workplace of zero tolerance. This needs to be promoted at all levels of leadership.
- Thirdly, employers must develop and implement a sexual harassment policy. This includes ensuring staff are aware of the policy, and to know and be comfortable with the avenues to lodge a complaint. Many individuals claim that they didn’t report sexual harassment due to not knowing the correct way to do so.
The #metoo movement has gained worldwide popularity and gives many a reason to be hopeful – so much so that Time Magazine has recognised the movement as “Person of the Year” for 2017. By these current movements giving a voice and believability to victims, we are seeing people gain a much better understanding of what sexual harassment is, how commonplace it is, and the extent of damage it does to not only to victims but the overall workplace.
About Rolf Howard
Rolf is Managing Partner of Owen Hodge Lawyers. He has been in the legal practice since 1986 and a partner of Owen Hodge Lawyers since 1992. Rolf focuses on assisting clients to proactively manage legal responsibilities and opportunities to achieve competitive advantage. Rolf concentrates on business planning and formation, directors’ duties, corporate governance, fund raising and business succession. His major interest is to assist business owners and their financial advisers plan and implement strategies to build and exit from successful businesses.