No government department is free from sexual harassment. Five ideas for tackling it in the public sector

By Paul Grimes

Wednesday December 18, 2019

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Victorian Public Sector Commissioner Paul Grimes and Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton share five ideas that can help public sector leaders address sexual harassment in their organisations and steer a course towards safer, more inclusive workplaces.

If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that sexual harassment can and does occur in every industry and every sort of organisation. And now, a report by the Victorian Auditor-General has put the spotlight on sexual harassment in the Victorian Public Service. While VAGO’s report highlights the progress that has been made in recent years, it also shows that there’s more departments can do.

Kristen Hilton

Here are five ideas that can help public sector leaders tackle sexual harassment in their organisations and steer a course towards safer, more inclusive workplaces.

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1. Understand the problem

If we’re serious about dealing with sexual harassment in the public sector, we need to develop a clear understanding of what it looks like and what impact it’s having — both on individuals and the organisation as a whole.

The first point to note is that sexual harassment is persistent. Though VAGO reports a general downward trend in rates of sexual harassment, based on the results of VPSC’s People Matter Survey (down from 11% in 2016 to 7% in 2019), no government department is free from sexual harassment.

The themes in the VAGO report align with the complaints data collected by VEOHRC. Sexual harassment is consistently amongst the most common themes in the complaints and enquiries VEOHRC receives. Workplaces are the most common site for sexual harassment to occur — last year, VEOHRC heard 122 reports of sexual harassment in complaints and, of these, 91% occurred at work (reported 111 times). In most cases, sexual harassment is paired with other forms of discrimination — for example, in its submission to the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, VEOHRC noted that 55% of people who made a complaint about sexual harassment also complained about sex discrimination, and 43% had experienced victimisation related to sexual harassment.

It’s also important to note that sexual harassment can take many different forms — but regardless of seriousness, every incident warrants a response. VAGO’s report identified intrusive questioning about an individual’s private life or comments about their appearance to be the most common types of sexual harassment experienced within Victorian government departments, followed by sexually suggestive comments or jokes, and inappropriate staring or leering.

2. Commit to victim-centric complaints processes

One of the most telling findings in the VAGO report was the low rate of reporting. According to the PMS results, only 3% of public servants who experienced sexual harassment made a formal complaint.

What’s even more unsettling is that many of those who decided not to report their experience did so because they lacked confidence in the reporting mechanisms themselves. Around a third feared negative consequences as a result of making a complaint, and another third just didn’t believe it would make a difference.

Improving rates of reporting is an important step in dealing with sexual harassment. Public sector leaders need to be able to assure their employees that any complaints of sexual harassment will be dealt with confidentially and as a matter of priority. Across the public sector, there is a need for swifter, more supportive and victim-centred complaints processes — ones that focus less on lengthy procedures and more on impact.

Employees who experience sexual harassment at work have a range of pathways for seeking support or making a report. They can make a complaint to their manager or their department’s people and culture team. If they feel uncomfortable reporting the incident internally, they can make a complaint to an external complaints body such as VEOHRC, which offers a free dispute resolution service and can help to arrange mediation. Employees can also access their employee assistance program for further support.

3. Support bystanders to speak up

Feelings of isolation are a common theme in complaints about sexual harassment, and this reinforces the important role witnesses can play in supporting victims and taking action to stop it from occurring again.

Recent research identifies the critical role that mobilising bystanders can play in addressing sexual harassment — but it relies on them feeling empowered to speak up. The 2017 national community attitudes towards violence against women survey found that the majority of Australians said they would be bothered by seeing a woman being verbally abused (98%) or made the subject of sexist jokes (76%), but only 45% said they would take action in response.

Increasing employees’ knowledge of appropriate bystander action and reassuring bystanders that they’ll be supported if they speak up are important first steps.

4. Use policies, frameworks and data as a foundation for a safer culture

One of the distinctive features of Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act is the positive duty it imposes on employers and other organisations — this requires them to not just deal with complaints when they arise, but to proactively take steps to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring. The good news is that there are some useful resources and innovative models to support public sector leaders to fulfil this obligation.

Between our two organisations, we provide a suite of resources that can assist. VPSC provides a model policy, guide and action plan for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, focused on building a healthy workplace culture and identifying risk areas. As part of the framework, VPSC has also developed a ‘maturity model’ for VPS workplaces to work towards by 2021.

Further guidance is available in VEOHRC’s guideline Sexual harassment: Complying with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. It provides practical advice for employers and others on preventing sexual harassment. A new edition is in development currently, for release in early 2020.

Another recent development was VEOHRC’s pilot program ‘Raise it! Conversations about sexual harassment and workplace equality’. Funded by the Victorian Office for Women, ‘Raise it!’ sought to equip staff and managers with appropriate skills to tackle difficult conversations about sexual harassment, discrimination, pregnancy and flexible work arrangements. At the conclusion of the pilot, 85% of participants felt more confident to make a complaint about sexual harassment.

Accurate data about sexual harassment is vital for us to understand prevalence, causes and whether particular groups of employees face a heightened risk. VPSC is working with government departments to ensure more robust measurement and evaluation, including the development of a minimum dataset. This data is collected twice a year by VPSC and reported annually to the Victorian Secretaries’ Board.

5. Create a clear vision for gender equality in your organisation

Leaders play a vital role in addressing sexual harassment — not just the practical steps like putting the right systems and processes in place, but establishing a clear vision for the organisation’s culture which recognises sexual harassment as a symptom of gender inequality.

It’s clear that there is still a way to go for the VPS and that a significant part of that work is changing attitudes to gender equality, improving people’s understanding of violence against women and shifting our workplace culture to make sure every Victorian can feel respected and included at work.

Both of our organisations accept VAGO’s recommendations, and we look forward to working with leaders across the public service to develop robust, effective guidance that creates safer, more inclusive workplaces.

Public sector employees who have experienced discrimination or harassment can make a complaint to VEOHRC on 1300 292 153 or via VEOHRC offers a free, fair and timely dispute-resolution service that can help to resolve complaints of discrimination and harassment.

Victorian government departments and agencies requiring guidance on the prevention and management of sexual harassment claims can contact VPSC on 03 7004 7220 or via VEOHRC can also support departments by providing training and reviewing sexual harassment policies.


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