Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins says employers aren’t receiving complaints about most sexual harassment in workplaces, with anonymous surveys, shared industry resources and a greater focus on prevention needed.
Speaking at a national workplace sexual harassment forum convened by federal work health and safety regulator Comcare, Jenkins said complaint rates had hovered around 17% for decades.
At the same time, Jenkins, in her 2020 Respect@Work report, found one-in-three people experienced sexual harassment in the previous five years, up from one in five in 2012.
“Australia, as a lot, is not a group that wants to complain,” she said. “But also we have found the group that do complain do experience negative consequences as a result, and in many cases there was no consequence as a result of their complaints.”
This shows, Jenkins says, that a system relying on complaints is not getting to the heart of the problem or preventing it from happening.
“The main driver of sexual harassment is power disparity. It is not driven by sex,” she told the virtual forum on Thursday.
Information, media and technology, and arts and recreation stood out in the commissioner’s assessment of the prevalence of sexual harassment in industries, but male-dominated industries like construction and mining are also high.
The best way to address sexual harassment was through shared industry action, Jenkins said, where training resources could be pooled together and the movement of labour between workplaces could receive consistent instruction and support.
One recommendation the federal government has supported from Jenkins’ report is to establish one platform to share resources, which she said was due to be available next year.
Leadership in organisations was also important, Jenkins said, with people more likely to consider their workplace safe and respectful if their line manager modelled the right behaviour and they felt safe raising issues.
As a former employment lawyer, Jenkins said she was highly aware that typically organisations believed having a policy, mandatory training and complaints procedure would mean they had provided “reasonable steps” to avert incidents or defend the organisation.
“Having a policy and running training, we have evidence that shows, doesn’t automatically turn people into compliant people. It doesn’t assure you they understand what sexual harassment is,” she said.
“Without accountability, it doesn’t really have any huge impact.”
Jenkins said employers often found most efforts to be focused on responding to incidents rather than preventing them, and support was often only available once a complaint was made.
“We found that often the only way they could get the supports was if they want and made a complaint. And those things should not be linked, it should be up to the person on how and what they want to do,” she said.
She said the most common question from employers was what to do if someone said they had a complaint but didn’t want any action taken.
“They do want you to do something, they just don’t want to have to pay the price,” Jenkins said.
“For many organisations, I would recommend you look at your complaint processes and then do a review. I would encourage you to find a trauma expert … these organisations that are used to dealing with gendered harms and trauma and ask them to look at your processes.”
She said taking the victim seriously, working with them to consider options to make the workplace safe, and in situations where there was immediate danger or if allegations were more serious to take further action.
But Jenkins also stressed that the majority of sexual harassment occurring in workplaces “no one is complaining to [the employer] about”.
“I really encourage employers .. [to have] safe anonymous surveys that will tell you more accurately what’s going on. That is the most valuable thing for you to have going forward,” she said.