Sexually permeated workplaces: Not working for women
Speech Delivered by Pru Goward, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner
15 August 2002
National Association of Women in Construction
Breakfast Seminar Melbourne.
- Thank you for
inviting me here this morning. I am delighted to have been asked to
speak at your breakfast seminar.
- This morning I
would like to address two issues:
1. Work and family and
2. Working in a sexually permeated or sexually hostile work environment.
- Alone these issues
are huge - each could be the subject of its own address.
- The first issue
is about you as women who work. The second is about you as women who
work in a male dominated industry.
- Both however
are essentially about the same thing - the disadvantage faced by women
in the workforce today.
- Why at a time
when more women are completing school, entering university and embarking
on careers than ever before are we still talking about the workplace
disadvantage faced by women? Why are we here this morning?
- We are talking
about it because there are still pay inequities; gender gaps in many
professions; and the existence of a glass ceiling.
- Women still only
earn 84 cents to the male dollar; they still only account for 3 per
cent of senior management positions; and they still only hold 1.3 per
cent of executive positions.
- Every year at
the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission we receive complaints
of sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace and sexually
permeated or sexually hostile work environments continue to exist.
Sexually permeated or sexually hostile work environments
- Working in the
male dominated construction industry I am sure you are all too familiar
with this type of work environment - if not through your own first hand
experience, then through the experiences of your colleagues.
- This is why we
find organisations such as women in construction and women in policing.
You need each other.
- The display of
pornographic material, the consistent talk about sex, the crude conversations
and jokes and sexual innuendos often occur on male dominated work sites
- that's why they are called sexually hostile workplaces.
- It's just something
you don't have to put up with because you are the 'sheila' amongst the
- In a case involving
the display of pornography on a construction site, which I will discuss
in more detail later, it was held that one of the conditions of employment
is quiet enjoyment of it. This concept not only includes freedom from
physical intrusion or from being harassed, physically molested...but
extends to not having to work in an unsought sexually permeated work
- For many women
in male dominated industries quiet enjoyment of employment is not a
- In fact, hostile
work environments often act as a deterrent for women who have, despite
earlier deterrents still made the decision to enter male dominated industries.
- The attrition
rate, for example, of female apprentices with a particular mining company
in the 1990s was markedly higher than the male rate. Less than half
of their female apprentices finished the four year apprenticeship (5
out of 11) in the early 90s. In the mid 90s this
figure showed no sign of increasing - three out of five female apprentices
cancelled their apprenticeships before they were finished.
- The experiences
of females in male dominated industries - in particular the reality
of working in a sexually permeated work environment is undoubtedly a
reason why women remain less inclined to enter these non-traditional
- Let me give you
some examples of the type of sexually permeated workplaces that were
deemed unacceptable by courts in recent years.
Hopper v Mount Isa Mines Ltd and others (1997) EOC 92-87
- A young woman
began a diesel fitter mechanic apprenticeship with Mount Isa Mines.
She hoped to qualify as a diesel fitter mechanic and use that qualification
to gain entry to an engineering degree at university.
- Initially there
was a lot of resistance from the men at the company towards having a
woman work underground. Objections were raised about the facilities,
the roughness of the crew. The training foreman even admitted that female
apprentices have to prove their worth in a way that another apprentice
- No training was
given to the men, most of whom were working alongside women for the
first time. The women would have to make all of the adjustments.
- The female apprentice
found that said that she got on well at the beginning, although there
was some good natured joking about the fact that she and the other woman
employed had got the job that the men in the company wanted.
- From about six
months into the apprenticeship, and until she resigned two years later,
the woman was subject to sexual harassment and discrimination. While
it was not continuous it was persistent throughout that period.
- Apart from having
to deal with personal slurs about her sex life, she had to work in a
sexually permeated workplace - Playboy, Picture and People magazines
were regularly strewn across tables in the eating area and there were
posters of half dressed women throughout the mobile workshop and on
walls and lockers underground.
- The pictures
disturbed the apprentice, but she faced a dilemma about what to do.
She said that she wasn't offended by them because she didn't want to
cause any trouble. She did not know how to complain without causing
huge unrest where she was working.
- When she was
transferred to an underground copper mine nothing was done to prepare
the work area for it's first female apprentice - no new toilet was installed
and there was no privacy in the very primitive toilets that were there.
- In fact there
were no separate toilets in any of the mining areas she worked. The
toilets were not very private so she was forced to go in the dark. She
left her miner's light on outside to let people know she was in there.
There were no doors to the toilets, merely a low wall in front of them
separating them from the main tunnel. There were two toilets side by
side in this manner. Modification would have been simple but it was
not even thought about.
- She was subject
to assessment comments which were based on her gender - rather than
her ability. For example, one assessor wrote of her performance, "unfortunately
square pegs do not fit in round holes and a petite girl is way out of
her depth in an underground environment. She is very pleasant to have
around but a waste as far as being a useful tradesperson".
- The apprentice
quit after two years (the whole apprenticeship was for four years).
She found herself unable to work in her chosen field. As a result she
had to dramatically alter her career aspirations. She took the company
to the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Tribunal.
- The company was
found liable for acts of sexual harassment committed against the female
apprentice by various male employers over a period of several months.
- She was awarded
$48,742 in damages including compensation for hurt and humiliation and
loss of income.
- The company never
ensured that supervisors passed on information about sexual harassment
and sex discrimination to employees nor did it develop any system to
educate employees about anti-discrimination and sexual harassment.
- The tribunal also
found that mining crews were not prepared for the induction of women
into a previously all male workplace, a situation that was likely to
cause problems if not managed properly.
Horne & McIntosh v Press Clough Joint Venture (1994) EOC 92-556
- Two female construction
workers were employed as trades assistants in 1990 to clean amenities
and 'crib rooms' (recreation rooms) on a building site which employed
nearly 3000 men. The women complained about a sexually explicit poster
in a supervisor's office.
- As a result, more
posters and ones of an increasingly pornographic nature were placed
around the building site. Clearly with the intention of angering, frightening
and harassing the two women. The women were also subjected to verbal
abuse and intimidation.
- When the women
sought assistance from the union organiser of the Metals and Engineering
Workers' Union (MEWU), their complaints weren't taken seriously and
more explicit nude posters were then displayed in the union office.
- The women successfully
brought a complaint of sexual harassment before the WA Equal Opportunity
Tribunal against the Employer and the Union. The women were awarded
$92,000 in damages.
- This case was
not about the censorship of pornographic images. It was about the right
of women to work in a respectful environment where they are treated
- Women, like all
workers, deserve the right to work in respectful environments. They
will not work in environments where they are not respected. They will
not work sexually permeated work environments.
- Most women do
not complain. They express this dissent by not working in these fields
or getting out. Low numbers of women in male dominated fields reflect
- The construction
industry for example, remains an area where women are poorly represented.
- In fact, women
in construction suffer more gender bias than women employed in any other
industry in Australia.
- The industry
is also one of the poorest performing in Affirmative Action and Equal
- It is no wonder
then that in May 2002 it was reported in the Royal Commission into the
Building and Construction Industry that women, who make up 44 per cent
of the overall workforce in Australia today, make up only 13 per cent
of employees in this industry.
- In 1998 the then
Affirmative Action Agency found that the majority of women employed
in the construction industry were in para-professional positions; the
smallest group were those working in trades or as labourers.
- Whether this figure
is increasing or declining is debatable. In 1998 the then Affirmative
Action Agency reported that 12 per cent of those employed in construction
and building were women. We have then in 5 years a one per cent increase.
Victorian statistics show that since 1994 women's share of enrolments
in the Building & Construction industry vocational education and
training has declined from 5.9 percent to 4.3 percent in 2000.
- This decline
occurs at a time when women are steadily making inroads into other male
dominated careers. The number of women studying engineering for example
continues to increase annually. It also occurs as the proportion of
female enrolments in vocational education and training (VET) in Victoria
continues to gradually increase - from 45.6% in 1994 to 48.2% in 2000.
- Why is this?
- According to a
study undertaken by a student at the University of Newcastle one of
the reasons is because parents aren't encouraging their daughters to
go into construction.
- Lack of encouragement
for young women to enter non traditional roles has always been a problem
- and it is not just by parents.
- Gender stereotypes
prevail throughout society and influence the choices we all make.
- School career
advisors need to be educated on the opportunities for women in the construction
industry and establishing effective promotional frameworks to challenge
- Women who have
succeeded in the industry should act as mentors for other women and
mentoring programs should be established for women while they are studying
a career in construction.
- How often do
you hear how women are good communicators, best in people oriented jobs
and caring professions
they are not good with numbers or operating
machinery or in more technical jobs. Maybe it's been said about you.
- Although not specifically
sexual, these type of gender-related comments and stereotypes exist
not only for young women, but for those women who, despite their 'unsuitable
predisposition' decide that they do want to work in the construction
- According to the
CFMEU complaints of overt sexual harassment in the construction industry
have declined. What women do commonly experience however is an unwanted
paternalism from their male colleagues - who seem to believe they need
to be looked after and protected on construction sites.
- This 'caring'
behaviour is unwarranted and detrimental to women. It fosters the attitude
that their position on a construction site is out of the ordinary, and
not quite up to it. This makes it increasingly difficult for women to
progress in this industry.
- The impact of
a sexually permeated environment on a women's career progress cannot
be underestimated - if a work environment is unable to accommodate women's
sanitary needs, it is unlikely that it will be able to accommodate the
greater needs of women in the workforce - primarily the need to balance
work and family.
- It is so difficult
for women in traditional areas of employment to achieve this balance.
The problem is exacerbated for women in non-traditional areas of employment
- where there are less women and more sexually hostile work environments.
Workplace disadvantage as a result of having to balance work and family
- I would like
to use my remaining time to consider this broader issue, which is the
root cause of the workplace and career disadvantage that women experience
today whether working in traditional or non traditional areas of employment
- the need to balance work and family.
- How is it that
men and women, who start out on their life journeys much the same end
up in such vastly different circumstances in the workforce?
- One reason dominates
over all others.
- Between the ages
of 20 and 24 for example, full time female employees earn about 92 per
cent of what their male counterparts earn. 
- This gap - although
not enormous, should surprise us given the high numbers of female graduates
and the almost 50-50 participation in all forms of post-secondary education.
- It gets worse.
- The average age
at which women have their first child is now 29.8.
- For men and women
in full time work, after the age of thirty, overall that ratio is 84
- Some of this is
because the paid work women do is "undervalued", or women
do not bargain as hard for wage increases as men, or even that women
may be more contented on lower wages than men, but mostly it is because
women choose jobs, even full time jobs, that enable them to put their
- These jobs pay
- They do not take
those periods of "acting manager" at the store on the far
side of town, because it makes it harder to drop kids at school or pick
them up afterwards.
- They do not take
the "acting promotion" interstate for two months because they
cannot leave their children.
- They try to leave
the office on time because they have children to collect and care for.
they ask for lunch hours at times that fit in with children's after-school
needs, earning them the resentment of colleagues and the disapproval
of their boss.
- In the past women
streamed themselves into careers that suited families, such as teaching
and nursing, and got stuck in jobs that were undervalued precisely because
they were done by women.
- Apart from students
and trainees, the largest group of part time and casual workers are
- Part time and
casual work, ironically, gives women the opportunity to fit around their
- Sure, it is difficult
to find well paid part time or casual work (the bulk is in hospitality
and retail) and extremely difficult to find it at the professional or
managerial end of the labour market, but it remains the preferred form
of work for women with families.
- It is a great
pity that part time work is not better developed in Australia; although
we have one of the most casualised work-forces in the world, and one
of the highest proportions of part time workers, we do not have a systemic
approach to part time work.
- That is, it is
very difficult to get part time work at a middle, let alone senior,
level, while formal child care on a part-time or shift basis is almost
- For this reason
many women sit unhappily in full time jobs or leave the work force altogether,
venturing back only as a casual nurse doing weekend night shifts when
her partner can mind the kids, or doing a bit of evening waitressing
or weekend work in a shop, again, when hubby can mind the kids.
- This all occurs because not only are women the bearers of children, but they usually bear the major responsibility for the subsequent care of children.
Addressing female workplace disadvantage
- Highlighting the
workplace disadvantage faced by women today does not need to be a frustrating
experience. Rather it can be seen as setting the parameters of our challenge
- ensuring we have a workforce that works for women.
- It is not a challenge
that we can address alone. There needs to be commitment from employers,
all employees and all of society to making the workforce work for women.
- As women who work
we know how the workforce will work for us.
- We can guide these
changes so that the workforce fosters our needs and is a place where
we are respected and not harassed.
- As women in a
male dominated industry do not tolerate sexually permeated workplaces.
The outcome of the two cases I raised today send a message, loud and
clear, that you do not have to.
- Women in male
dominated industries often have little contact with other women in their
industries. Establish and foster contacts, generate discussion on issues
relevant to you and don't keep it on the sidelines. Introduce mentoring
programmes for women entering the construction industry.
- You need to be
proactive. We all do.
- We need to work together to ensure that a suite of measures is introduced to adequately address the need to balance work and family. Paid maternity leave is part of this. But there is a bigger picture - we need to create a workforce that is more flexible in it's work practices and attitudes towards women - because we work, and we have children.