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Another step closer to gender equality (2010)

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

 

The following opinion pieces have been published by the President and Commissioners. Reproduction of the opinion pieces must include reference to where the opinion piece was originally published.


Another step closer to gender equality

Author: By Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Commissioner responsible for Age Discrimination

Published in The Newcastle Herald, 22 October 2010, pg 9.


High profile cases of any kind that are played out under the intense media spotlight are never easily understood. Gossip and sensationalism inevitably interfere with our understanding of the precise issues that are being considered.

The David Jones – Kirsty Fraser Kirk sexual harassment case, which drew to a close on the weekend after the parties reached an agreement during conciliation at the Australian Human Rights Commission, is no different.

In the glare of the much touted 37 million dollar damages claim and the reputation of one of Australia’s most respected and successful retailers, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that sexual harassment is a daily reality in workplaces around Australia and that people must summon enormous reserves of courage to lodge a complaint.

In many cases, lodging a complaint can mean taking on large and powerful organisations as well as powerful people. This can be an undertaking fraught with psychological hurdles.

This is why it can be difficult to take the step of moving from suffering discrimination and harassment to taking formal action. This is why some people would rather resign and walk away, despite the significant harm this might cause them. This is why research by the Commission found that only 16 percent of people who have been sexually harassed in the workplace ever make any form of complaint.

Lodging a complaint about sexual harassment can, in some circumstances, be the reality that we saw play out in vivid living colour on our television screens, on the internet and in our newspapers and magazines over the months during which the David Jones– Kirsty Fraser Kirk case was unfolding. Everyone’s reputation was heavily scrutinised.

But that is not the ordinary course of events.

This case also highlights the reassuring fact that – as happens in the vast majority of situations - even the most public of cases can draw to a very private conclusion. In fact, that is the core characteristic of the conciliation process. By lodging a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission, a complaint will be conciliated in a completely confidential, informal and low key manner.

In fact, aside from the hefty media contingent following their every move, the process and details of the conciliation between the parties to the David Jones - Kirsty Fraser Kirk case remained just that – private and confidential.

At conciliation, the parties involved have ownership of, and control over, the outcome, having negotiated it between themselves with the assistance of an impartial third party - the Commission. The ability to sit down in an impartial environment with highly skilled conciliators to negotiate a resolution, which is acceptable to all, is what we do every day.

A high profile case like this also has a strong educational value. Workers across Australia will benefit from this increased attention paid to harassment, workplace equity and corporate governance.

It would be hard to imagine any CEO, manager or board of directors in this country that is not now acutely aware of sexual harassment in a front-of-mind way. I have no doubt that businesses everywhere are hurriedly checking that they have an effective sexual harassment workplace strategy and, if not, ensuring they implement one.

Businesses around the country have also learnt that there are wider legal avenues through which a sexual harassment complaint might be pursued in the future. More than one piece of legislation can be involved – in this case the Sex Discrimination Act, the Trade Practices Act and the Fair Work Act, to name a few. So the stakes are much higher than we might have once thought.

This case engaged the nation. For that I am very grateful. Australian workplace practices are good, but the profile and discussions that this case attracted will ensure that we are one step closer to banishing the scourge of sexual harassment forever.

It is a fact that every day across this country women are experiencing sexual harassment.

It is a fact that it takes courage to stand up and say, “I did not deserve this – it is morally wrong and I want to do something about it so it does not happen to me or anyone else ever again.”

It is also a fact that each time someone does this, they send a strong message that sexual harassment is wrong, it is unlawful and it has no place in our 21st century Australian workplaces.

And each time this message is sent, we are one step closer to real gender equality in employment.

 

Elizabeth Broderick is Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

 

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