What’s to celebrate on IWD 2021, with its ‘he said/she said’ backdrop to sexual harassment and assault?

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Monday March 8, 2021

(Image: Adobe/Taras Vyshnya)

It is now up to the public sector to fulfil its potential of being an employer of choice for women, and act to prevent sexual harassment. Following Victoria’s lead would be a good start, write Sue Williamson and Linda Colley.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is women in leadership during COVID-19. This is an admirable theme. There is no doubt that women’s leadership strengths were evident during the pandemic crisis, with reports showing that countries led by women had lower mortality rates.

The Australian Public Service (APS) has a majority female workforce and has proved itself agile and flexible in responding to the pandemic challenges.

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Now another crisis is upon us – the scourge of sexual assault and harassment.

The public service has long been considered an employer of choice for women, so surely women are safe in this industry sector? It seems that is far from true, according to a recent poll. Only half of respondents considered the public sector a safe workplace for women.

Just over two-in-five people stated they had little or no trust in the public service to provide a safe workplace for women. Since the public sector is considered a model employer, the low level of confidence that the public service is safe for women is surprising.

However, the public service rates favourably compared with other sectors. Other, more robust data gathered by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018 shows that the public sector ranked mid-range of all industries in terms of the incidences of sexual harassment. This category also includes the defence forces, where sexual harassment has been endemic. It also and seems to be ongoing, if judged by the Chief of the Defence Force’s recent victim-blaming comments.

The APS also collects data on sexual harassment. Recent data shows rates of bullying and harassment have been declining in the APS. In 2012, more than 17% of APS employees reported being bullied or harassed. This declined to 13% in 2019 and, of the 500 complaints about bullying and harassment in 2019, just over 30 were about sexual harassment.

Before we take too much comfort from this low number, remember that sexual harassment is under-reported. One US study found that almost all workplace sexual harassment is not reported. So, the low incidence rate for the APS does not mean that public services can afford to be complacent.

Sexual harassment may still be prevalent in particular public sector organisations. A recent OECD report told of widespread sexual harassment in a rural fire service, and harassment in police forces has been rife, although leadership commitment to reform has resulted in some progress for Victoria Police.

To know the extent of under-reporting, regular, confidential assessments and surveys are needed to gauge the extent of sexual harassment. The Victorian government is leading the way on this – and gender equality obligations more broadly – and will conduct an audit across Victorian Public Sector organisations to gauge the extent of sexual harassment. Knowing the extent of the problem is the first step to addressing it.

Reporting is also key. The Workplace Gender Equality has recommended that the APS be the first jurisdiction to report on the provision and frequency of workplace training on sexual harassment and training. Training on sexual harassment is not always effective, however, with research showing that it can make men defensive and more likely to blame the victims. Paradoxically, men who are likely to harass are more likely to accept such behaviour after training.

Individual-level approaches are necessary, but also need to be accompanied by systemic reform. The Australian Human Rights Commission released a landmark report on sexual harassment last year, recommending a range of reforms and new approaches to reducing sexual harassment. So far, the government has agreed to implement only a few of the Commission’s 55 recommendations.

Behavioural change to complement systemic change is also necessary. The poll referred to earlier also shows that almost three-in-five men believe that gender equality has largely been achieved. We have previously written about gender fatigue, which acts as a subtle form of resistance to gender equality initiatives.

A key means of overcoming gender fatigue is through problem ownership. Researchers have found that when men own the problem of gender inequality, they can become effective change agents. This needs to start from the top. As the Australian Human Rights Commission notes, high level leadership and political will is key to preventing sexual harassment.

In the absence of national leadership, and the poor example set in the Australian parliamentary circles in the past month, it will be left to organisations to take the lead. It is now up to the public sector to fulfil its potential of being an employer of choice for women, and act to prevent sexual harassment. Following Victoria’s lead would be a good start.


Political staffers don’t trust their bosses to investigate sexual harassment reports impartially, CPSU survey finds

Why political staffers are vulnerable to sexual misconduct – and little is done to stop it

Australia should learn from NZ on gender equality, Gillard says

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