Sexual harassment pervasive in Australian workplaces

A national inquiry has found that sexual harassment in Australian workplaces is “widespread and pervasive” and equally shocking is the “gendered and intersectional nature of workplace sexual harassment”.

In her foreword to the inquiry’s Respect@Work report, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins also noted that despite the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984 “the rate of change has been disappointingly slow”.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report, released on 5 March, calls for a “multifaceted and whole-of-community response” to sexual harassment and focuses on five key areas:

  • data and research
  • primary prevention initiatives
  • refocused legal and regulatory framework
  • better workplace prevention and responses
  • better support, advice and advocacy for people who experience sexual harassment.

The report is the culmination of the 18-month National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces established to examine the drivers, nature and prevalence of this harassment and identify measures to address and prevent it.

During the inquiry the Commission heard that in addition to gender other factors such as age, sexual identity, workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, disability and workers in precarious or insecure employment may increase the likelihood that a person may experience workplace sexual harassment. Moreover, power disparities in society as well as in the workplace enabled sexual harassment.

The Respect@Work report makes 55 recommendations which propose a new approach for government, employers and the community “to better prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace”.

In the first recommendation, the report expressly states that the federal government work with the state and territory governments to provide joint funding to implement the recommendations.

The Commission reported that, according to the economic modelling conducted, the estimated economic cost of sexual harassment to the Australian economy was $3.8 billion, but noted this was a conservative estimate.

Federation’s December 2018 state Council decision to make a submission to the national inquiry was carried unanimously.

The Federation submission stated that in the education sector there is a need for public education employers to provide more effective guidance and support in relation to identifying, preventing and effectively responding to sexual and/or gender-based harassment in relation to staff and students in schools, TAFE and other education workplaces, as the current legislation and policy process to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace is failing.

Initial analysis of the Respect@Work report shows that the recommendations align with and cover all of the issues raised in the Federation Council decision and submission to the inquiry. The report also calls for the establishment of “a collaboration between unions, employers and employer associations to deliver information, education and resources for workers and employers” and detailed this across several separate recommendations.

Additionally, the AHRC states that three years after the release of the report it will conduct an assessment of any changes in the prevalence, nature and reporting of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces since the inquiry, and make any further recommendations necessary to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

A brief joint statement by federal Minister for Women Senator Marise Payne and Attorney-General Christian Porter on 5 March confirmed: “The Government will now take the time to carefully consider the report and its recommendations, recognising that states and territories, and the private sector, also have a key role to play.”

Whether, and to what extent, the federal, state and territory governments will be prepared to fund the recommendations is yet to be determined. Nor has a timeframe been provided publicly for a formal government response to the report.

Respect@Work report

TR9 – Dealing with Sexual Harassment