Sexual harassment in APS ‘significantly underreported’ due to lack of trust in leadership, survey finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Friday April 30, 2021

Melissa Donnelly
CPSU National Secretary Melissa Donnelly. (Image: CPSU)

The Community and Public Sector Union has published survey results detailing the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment within the Australian Public Service, highlighting the “largely insufficient” prevention and response measures implemented by government agencies.

The report, released on Friday, has urged Senior Executive Service leaders to “be more proactive, engaged and vocal in creating safe and respectful workplaces”.

The union has also developed a sexual harassment prevention and response framework that APS agencies can implement, which has been based on the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work report.

A survey conducted by the CPSU during March and April received 3,280 responses from across public and private sector workplaces, including staff from the commonwealth, ACT and Northern Territory public sectors, as well as the CSIRO, ABC, Australia Post and Telstra. The majority of respondents were female (67%).

Sixteen percent of respondents said they have experienced sexual harassment in their current workplace, with women disproportionately impacted. Almost one in five respondents said they have witnessed sexual harassment in their current workplace.

The report noted that some workers have faced intersecting forms of discrimination, which has further affected their experience of sexual harassment. Vulnerable groups that reported having experienced sexual harassment in their current workplace included workers with a disability, those who identify as LGBTQIA, and those who identify as non-binary.

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

Workplace sexual harassment is “significantly underreported”, the survey found, with only one in three incidents reported. Respondents’ reasons for not reporting included that they didn’t trust the incident would be investigated impartially (32%), they didn’t think the report would change the situation (16%), concern that their career opportunities would be impacted (15%), and confidentiality concerns (7%).

Other reasons given were that the harasser was their manager; they were discouraged from reporting; they were a young employee in a male-dominated workplace; and they felt they wouldn’t be taken seriously due to being male.

Another reason was uncertainty about the behaviour constituting sexual harassment. Around 4% of respondents said they were unsure if they had experienced sexual harassment, which the report notes reflects the “lack of understanding and training about what sexual harassment is (or is not), and how to respond when situations of sexual harassment arise”.

In regard to awareness of workplace policies relating to sexual harassment, the survey found:

  • 70% of respondents know who to talk to about sexual harassment in the workplace,
  • 52% of respondents’ workplaces have made staff aware of what behaviour constitutes sexual harassment,
  • 45% of respondents’ workplaces have made staff aware that sexual harassment, including by third parties must be reported,
  • 26% of respondents strongly agree or agree their manager talks to them about relevant policies and expected behaviours,
  • 17% of respondents strongly agree or agree workers are involved in developing policies aim.

Of the incidents of sexual harassment that were reported, workplace responses were often perceived as being inadequate, the report said.

“An analysis of the qualitative data indicates about one third of respondents perceived the workplace response to be satisfactory or sufficient,” it said.

“On the other hand, qualitative data revealed that some workplaces have effective processes and supports for employees where senior leadership is active and the importance of issues is reflected by managers at all levels of the organisation.”

Based on the findings, the CPSU has argued that there is room for most organisations to develop and implement of policies that better prevent and address sexual harassment in consultation with employees and the union.

“Those workplaces that have policies need to do more work to increase awareness, understanding and enforcement of the policies and procedures,” the report said.

One respondent told the survey that “having policies is one thing, talking about them is another thing”. Another said the Senior Executive Service and other leaders must speak “often and loudly” about how sexual harassment is unacceptable, and be “very clear in how women will be supported if they come forward with complaints”.

The research has highlighted that there is a need for specific face-to-face training on sexual harassment, with a “significant number of respondents” indicating that the issue is often covered as part of broader training sessions.

“Provide the training, we currently only have WHS training and Code of Conduct training, not specific sexual harassment and awareness/bystander training,” one respondent said.

CPSU creates framework for public sector organisations

The AHRC released its Respect@Work report more than one year ago, outlining 55 recommendations to stamp out sexual harassment within workplaces across the country. The government finally responded to that report this month, following a number of allegations of sexual harassment, rape and misconduct levelled against politicians and political staffers.

Based on the AHRC’s recommendations, the CPSU has developed a framework for ensuring safe and respectful workplaces. CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly told The Mandarin that agencies and departments will be invited to sign up to the framework.

“The Morrison government failed to respond to the [Respect@Work] report for more than a year. In that time, CPSU members raised sexual harassment and gender issues in enterprise agreement negotiations, workplace consultative forums, and workplace health and safety committees, with no real action taken by the government, APS departments or agencies,” she said.

Donnelly said CPSU members hope the framework will be adopted by departments and agencies to help them address the “troubling rates” of sexual harassment revealed in the survey.

“Women workers have identified a range of issues that contribute to gender inequity and perpetuate a workplace culture that fails to support them keep them safe. The problem is not that women are failing to propose solutions. The problem is that the government and employers are not listening,” she said.

READ MORE: Respect@Work: experts ask, who’ll do the heavy lifting?


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