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Will sexual harassment ever be eliminated? (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.

Will sexual harassment ever be eliminated?

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

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, 6 November 2010, pg 12.

I want to believe that the scourge of sexual harassment could be completely eliminated from our workplaces. But like any form of harassment, discrimination or bullying, that ideal outcome is probably idealistic. Yet, I do believe we can improve our workplaces to the extent that its prevalence can be vastly reduced.

The bottom line is that we need to develop a culture that does not tolerate acts of sexual harassment. To do so, we need to continually promote awareness of the issue and educate people about its nature, prevalence and implications at the personal, business and community level.

The Commission’s 2008 Sexual Harassment Telephone survey found that 22 percent of women and 5 percent of men aged between 18 and 64 had been sexually harassed at work. One of the study’s most startling discoveries was the widespread confusion about what behaviour is and is not appropriate between colleagues. In fact, 22 percent of survey respondents, who initially said they had not experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, reversed their claim when behaviour considered to be sexual harassment was described to them.

We clearly need to educate the public about the difference between acceptable flirting and unwelcome, unlawful behaviour. We need to educate men and women, employees and employers.

Recent high profile sexual harassment cases have illustrated that this form of discrimination is potentially costly and reputation-ruining for organizations, and has the potential to be fought out in the courts under a number of different pieces of law.

Regardless of your view on the participants or the outcomes of these cases, one thing is for sure – there are unlikely to be many businesses anywhere in Australia that are not at least thinking about this issue or examining their workplace policies in relation to it.

The cases also highlight the value of the Commission’s complaints process, a powerful tool that can lead us in the right direction. The more people that muster the courage to formalise their experience of harassment into a complaint, the closer we come to our goal of eradication.

Each time a complaint is lodged it sends a strong message that sexual harassment is wrong, it is unlawful and it has no place in our workplaces.

And each time this message is sent, whether in privacy between the parties concerned, or more publicly, we come that bit closer to achieving our objective of elimination.

Elizabeth Broderick is Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

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