8 April 2021
Sexual harassment is not a political issue. It’s a human issue.
We have heard the voices of thousands of women marching for justice and the stories from the highest levels across the country. The National Inquiry, [email protected] has told us how pervasive this issue is. And as a nation we are rightly focussed on it given the devastating personal and professional toll, the harm and pain experienced by countless women for too long.
We must accept that sexual harassment has been able to persist in our workplaces, not because of ‘a few bad apples’, but because our expectations, systems and organisational cultures do not prevent it or respond appropriately to those who are impacted. The standard approach has been to wait for something to go wrong and then put the onus on the individual to raise and fix the problem. This has meant that people largely do not come forward or are subject to complex and traumatic processes.
As leaders, especially male leaders, we must listen to the voices and experiences of women, listen to the experts, implement their recommendations and disrupt the system we built. Sexual harassment is never okay. Victim blaming is never okay. Both are harmful, intimidating, and an abuse of power.
There is now a real groundswell and a massive opportunity for change. We are calling on all leaders to get on with it. We don’t need to wait for the finalisation of new legislation or policy. We need to make the prevention and early intervention our priority so we can significantly reduce the number of people impacted and ensure respect, care and support for those people who are harmed.
According to a 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) survey, 72% of Australians over 15 have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. In the previous 5 years, 39% of women and 26% of men said they had been harassed at work.
We have a long way to go to eliminate sexual harassment but there is a national blueprint.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Jenkins’ extensive and historic National Inquiry engaged widely across the Australian community, with workplaces, leaders and experts and importantly, those impacted by sexual harassment, to present a comprehensive roadmap for a new approach.
Amongst the 55 recommendations agreed by the government in full or in part, are some key systemic shifts – a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment, a holistic safety approach rather than a compliance approach, proactive culture change rather than relying on individual incidents to spark action, transparency and psychological safety for people to come forward rather than silencing and cover-ups, and human-centred systems to responding to impacted people rather than complex legalistic processes.
It is the role of the Australian Government to get the legislative and policy settings right through the implementation of the recommendations. But it’s not only the law and funding that will eradicate sexual harassment in our workplaces. We all must play our part. Sexual harassment is much more than a legal issue – it is a societal problem driven by gender inequality in the workplace and exacerbated for certain groups.
No organisation or workplace is immune and even those with the best intentions must know that what we have been doing to address sexual harassment in the past has not been working.
Over the past two years as Members of the Champions of Change Coalition we have been looking deeply at the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. We recently produced the resource Disrupting the System Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment in the workplace as a guide to the necessary systemic shifts.
As leaders committed to accelerating gender equality in our organisations we know that we can use organisational systems to eradicate sexual harassment but this requires significant shifts.
We must elevate the prevention of sexual harassment as a leadership priority, with an action plan, behaviour expectations, oversight and reporting requirements clearly articulated.
We must address sexual harassment as a workplace health and safety issue and ensure we are providing physically and psychologically safe workplaces. The focus must be on prevention, consequence management and transparency in reporting to boards and external stakeholders.
We need to balance transparency and confidentiality. In the past the focus has been on managing reputational risk. The balance needs to shift so women can more freely tell their stories.
Good intentions are not enough. There is a roadmap. Zero tolerance must be backed by substantive action. This is on us. All of us.
Craig Drummond CEO Medibank, Kathryn Fagg AO Non Executive Director, James Fazzino Non Executive Director, Stephen Fitzgerald AO Non Executive Director, Annika Freyer CEO Champions of Change Coalition, Paul Jenkins Global Managing Partner Ashurst, Tony Johnson CEO EY, Kevin McCann AO Non Executive Director, Janet Menzies Chair Champions of Change Coalition, Dr Martin Parkinson AC PSM Non Executive Director, Andrew Penn CEO Telstra, Ian Silk CEO Australian Super, Andrew Stevens Non Executive Director, Elizabeth Broderick AO Founder Champions of Change Coalition.
This opinion piece was first published in Australian Financial Review publications and online on 8 April 2021.