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Australia's journey to a National Inquiry into workplace sexual harassment

Discrimination Sex Discrimination

The following opinion piece by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins appeared in Fairfax papers - SMH, the Age and The Canberra Times

On 5 October 2017, I boarded a flight from Britain. By the time I landed in Melbourne, the world had changed. The New York Times story exposing decades of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had broken. These allegations set off what can only be described as an avalanche, with women around the globe coming forward to tell their own stories of sexual harassment.

In Australia, I was asked to comment daily on the issue of sexual harassment. There were calls for a royal commission, refreshed codes of conduct, harsher punishments and changes to defamation laws.

By November, Australia had, for the first time, started a serious conversation about sexual harassment. It was clear that as a nation we needed to seize this moment, and I began speaking to government about the possibility of establishing a national inquiry.

For too long, victims of sexual harassment who’ve experienced these demeaning and humiliating behaviours, in some cases on a daily basis, in the workplace, have been expected to just put up with it. Many individuals have been discouraged from speaking out, or have been actively silenced. But now, there’s an unprecedented appetite for solutions.

On June 20, I announced a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

This inquiry is truly ground breaking. Australia is the first country in the world to take such decisive action to deal with workplace sexual harassment.

As Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I will be leading the inquiry and I am determined to see this process bring about real change.

From today, we are opening submissions to the inquiry. It will give all Australians the chance to have their voices heard on an issue that affects, in some way, almost every workplace in the country.

National inquiries are a core function of the Australian Human Rights Commission. They allow us to establish an extensive, nationwide and independent investigation into a particular human rights issue. They involve gathering evidence through research, consultations and written submissions and making findings and recommendations for change.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is known for these unique collaborations which bring attention to human rights issues of national significance. Our work to identify rates of sexual assault and harassment among university students last year gained widespread attention and we are, to date, the only country in the world with an ongoing collaboration between a national human rights institution and the defence force.

What our work has told us is that sexual harassment exists in just about every industry. Since 2002, the results of the commission’s national workplace sexual harassment surveys have consistently told us that sexual harassment is a regular occurrence. Early indications from the commission’s 2018 survey, to be released in the coming months, are that sexual harassment has significantly increased over the past five years.

In fact, every industry or organisation that has turned their attention to this issue in recent times has found that they have a problem: defence, police, surgeons, universities, media, sport, the list goes on. Every instance of sexual harassment I read about in the media and many of the complaints made to the commission have hallmarks of the cases I advised on as a corporate lawyer in the 1990s.

Back then, I was an employment lawyer advising companies in the emerging area of equal opportunity law. It was clear that businesses were motivated to seek legal advice about sexual harassment largely in order to avoid costly legal claims and the inevitable adverse media coverage.

In those days, sexual harassment was seen as a matter of risk management for human resources staff to solve. Develop a policy, train staff on the standards of expected behaviour and issue a complaint procedure. Job done.

But today, we know that these measures did not get the job done.

This national inquiry presents a unique opportunity for change. Over the next 12 months, we will be working to collect information and develop concrete, practical strategies to prevent and better respond to workplace sexual harassment.

I am calling on anyone with a story to tell or with ideas for change to make a submission. Your views and ideas are critical to the success of this world leading work and I encourage all Australians to take up this opportunity.

Kate Jenkins is the Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

Published in Sydney Morning Herald

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