The #metoo movement has exposed a core failing in workplace thinking about sexual harassment: complaints procedures often don’t work because women don’t use them.

ACU Adjunct Professor Lisa Heap has reviewed recent studies and analysed why women rarely report sexual harassment.  She said issues of equal pay, discrimination and family responsibilities underlie the widespread unwillingness to report sexual harassment and gendered violence in the workplace.

“There are good reasons why those experiencing it don’t report workplace sexual harassment at the time it occurs.  To do so is likely to result in ostracism, exclusion, career suicide or a direct threat to a complainants’ ongoing employment.”

In the lead-up to International Women’s Day on 8 March Adjunct Professor Heap is calling for a complete rethink of workplace culture which recognises sexual abuse and harassment won’t stop until women are empowered economically, socially and structurally.

The former Executive Director of the Australian Institute of Employment Rights said workplace laws designed to protect women are ineffective because lower status jobs, less financial security and greater family responsibilities means women often felt powerless to complain.

“Gender inequality experienced by women includes gender pay inequality, disadvantage and discrimination due to caring responsibilities, and being subjected to gendered violence.  Ultimately this inequality undermines women’s capacity to raise complaints, robbing them of agency and voice and creating insecurity.  Without the capacity to raise complaints and pursue their rights, these rights remain unrealised.

“Any strategies designed to end sexual harassment and other forms of gendered violence at work must address the structures and cultures of inequality and sexism that exist.

“Rather than waiting for complaints, employers should assume harassment is occurring and take a proactive approach to addressing it. Workplace laws should change to ensure organisations have a positive duty to eliminate the risk of gendered violence.”

The 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) survey on sexual harassment found only 17% of those who had experienced sexual harassment lodged a complaint. Most said they had little faith in their workplaces to deal with it, feared a complaint would be seen as an overreaction, or that it would be easier for them if they stayed quiet. 

Those witnessing harassment do little to stop it.  A Victoria wide investigation conducted by Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) in 2016 found almost 70% of those who have witnessed or who are aware of harassment, did nothing to prevent it or to limit the harm that it caused.

“This points to a culture where gendered violence is normalised.   It also underscores the broader gender inequality that exists in our workplaces and beyond,” said Adjunct Professor Heap. 

Adjunct Professor Heap is working with the National inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces to ensure the inquiry takes in the need for fundamental change to our laws, structures and cultures at work. 

“Change in one area alone will not be enough.  Our system of laws to address sexual harassment at work relies on the individuals who have experienced the harassment raising a complaint.  We now know that those experiencing this harassment are unlikely to report it and if they do little will change.  For real change we have to tackle the underlying drivers of sexual harassment and gendered violence – gender inequality.”

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