Using indicators to uncover ‘toxic’ workplace for women


Disproportionately small numbers of women in an office can be an indicator of deeper problems, says the man leading Victoria Police’s response to a review of discrimination and sexual harassment.

Employers need to ensure a safe working environment for staff, but it can be difficult to know what’s going on in every corner of a large organisation.

This makes indicators a valuable tool for uncovering where problems might be occurring, says Luke Cornelius.

Cornelius is leading Victoria Police’s response to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission review into sex discrimination and sexual harassment, including predatory behaviour, among Victoria Police personnel.

There are three key indicators he uses to pick out which units within this organisation of nearly 15,000 staff will be reviewed.

The first is the proportion of part-time staff in a workplace.

“That’s an excellent proxy measure at to whether or not the leadership in that part of the business is supportive of workplace flexibility,” Cornelius explained at the recent regulators forum hosted by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government in Melbourne.

“Given that 90% of our staff on flexible work arrangements are female, the opportunities that are closed off to people on flexible work arrangements are inherently discriminatory … It’s also a really powerful proxy measure for getting a sense of whether that business supports women.”

Second is the number of women in a workplace.

He gives the example of two units in the northwest Melbourne region, where women comprise 36% of staff on average. Among criminal investigation units in the area, 19% are women.

“There were two CIUs, criminal investigation units, which were 2% and 2.5%. So then you do the deep dive,” he says.

“You chase up the women who have been there and aren’t there anymore, and effectively undertake the exit interview.

“That then surfaces the issues which invariably go to leadership and invariably allow you to identify a hostile or toxic workplace for women. Because women aren’t stupid, men.”

Police go through an academy together at the start of their career, so there are strong networks across the force — including among women.

“So my female colleagues right through the course of their career picked up the phone to their squad-mates and said, I’m thinking of going here, what do you reckon? And those informal networks are used day in, day out as a protective measure by my female colleagues.

“That was what was happening with those two CIUs. The informal network of female colleagues was saying to their colleagues, ‘Do not go there, you’ll be treated like shit.’

“So you change the leadership and you immediately start to turn it around.”

The final indicator is the breakdown of who is offered development opportunities. If 40% of employees in an office are women, you’d expect women to be taking at least around 40% of the development assignments.

“But in actual fact when you look at that data and see it’s only 25%, as opposed to at least 40% — or even better, 50% you’d hope — again you’ve got a workplace that is set against the advancement and development of women,” Cornelius argues.

These types of data “actually correlate very tightly” with where greater harm is occurring, allowing you to ask the “killer question” to dig deeper and address the problem.

“Where are we seeing the harassment, where are we seeing the egregious behaviour?” he says.

“I can tell you, if you show me a workplace which has 2% women, and has disproportionately low levels of development assignment and support for flexible work, I’ll show you a workplace where sex discrimination, harassment and predatory behaviour are occurring. Absolutely.”

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