Over the past year, I have spoken with many women who have told me their personal accounts of being harassed in the workplace.
I spoke to one hospital worker who was sexually harassed by a male patient, who indecently exposed himself to her. Instead of helping her, the woman’s colleagues and manager assumed she was in a sexual relationship with him.
Another young woman told me she was asked to wear a bikini while fruit picking so she could get paid a bonus.
It is critical that we continue to shine a light on these issues. Everyone has the right to work free from sexual harassment and the fear of sexual violence.
The stories that have emerged about decades of sexual harassment and abuse allegedly perpetrated by Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein are disgusting and shocking.
But they also highlight the continued need to address sexual harassment in every workplace.
Complaints are going up
In the last reporting period the Human Rights Commission has seen a 13 per cent increase in complaints of sexual harassment.
Despite increased public awareness, we continue to hear of example after example of these behaviours being perpetrated by powerful people in public life.
They’re often men who have led highly successful careers and have managed to escape responsibility for their actions.
Last week Weinstein released a statement in which he spoke of the culture and rules about accepted workplace behaviours having changed since he “came of age” in the 1960s and ’70s — I don’t for a moment accept this excuse.
This issue is not isolated to the United States, or to the film industry; workplace sexual harassment is also of significant concern here in Australia.
A national survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2012 found that one in four women had been sexually harassed at work in the past five years.
Next month, the commission will conduct the fourth national workplace sexual harassment survey. These studies provide the only Australian data measuring the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment over time.
Previous surveys show little change in the prevalence of these behaviours and unfortunately, there is little to give us hope that this year’s results will be different.
The survey will also give us an insight into the barriers to reporting sexual harassment, both for victims and bystanders, which we know are significant.
Harassment can be hard to recognise
Almost as distressing as Weinstein’s conduct itself is the fact that there seemed to be a culture of silence around what was an “open secret” in the entertainment industry and that he used his position of power to coerce and silence victims.
We know from the commission’s research that despite increased reporting on these issues in the media, many people still do not recognise sexual harassment when it happens to them.
Many are afraid to report their experiences out of fear that it could damage their career.
In 2012, only one in five people who had been sexually harassed at work formally reported their experience.
Common reasons for not reporting were that they thought it was not serious enough, that the perpetrator was too senior or that it would be easier to keep quiet.
An appalling abuse of power
Some people have asked why Weinstein’s victims did not report the sexual harassment they experienced.
Many of the women said they were afraid to come forward because of the impact that speaking out might have on their career.
Our research shows that these fears about the negative consequences of reporting sexual harassment at work are very much grounded in reality.
Nearly one third of people who made a formal complaint about workplace sexual harassment said that they suffered significant consequences as a result, such as being labelled a trouble maker, being ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues.
Sexual harassment at work is an appalling abuse of power. It can have far-reaching and ongoing impacts on people’s lives.
As a community we need to do much more to address attitudes which blame and silence victims, excuse abuse and permit sexual harassment to occur.
To report sexual harassment or for more information on discrimination visit the Australian Human Rights Commission website.
First published on abc.net.au