Wednesday 7 March 2018


Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner


The Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins provided the following opinion piece to mark International Women's Day. It was published by the Herald Sun on March 7, 2018;

International Women's Day has been observed for more than 100 years. The day, which will be marked tomorrow, was established during the women’s suffrage movement and in the decades since, we have seen so many positive changes in the position and treatment of women.

This year, perhaps more than ever, there is a feeling that we still have a long way to go and that the challenges may be more numerous than many of us had believed.

I am referring to the avalanche of allegations of sexual harassment in Hollywood and elsewhere known as the #metoo movement.

In less than six months, we have seen a light shone on these behaviours and prominent abusers all around the world.

It is clear to me that one of the most important impacts of #metoo has been to provide people all around the world with a greater understanding of the scale of sexual harassment and of the harm it causes. So where do we go from here? It would be easy to get bogged down under the weight of this problem.

However, I strongly believe the shining of light on sexual harassment and abuse should give us reasons to hope that change is possible.

Late last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the results of the 2016 Personal Safety Survey, showing that while the proportion of Australians experiencing physical violence had declined between 2005 and 2016, in the same period, the proportion of women who experience sexual violence has not reduced.

In fact, sexual violence against women increased between 2012 and 2016.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has, for the past 15 years, conducted five-yearly surveys on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The 2012 survey results indicated one in four women and one in six men had been sexually harassed in the workplace in the previous five years.

Since beginning my term as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, many women have shared with me their heartbreaking stories of workplace sexual harassment.

A woman on a working visa told me she did not report sexual harassment because her employer threatened to report breaches of her visa restrictions to the authorities.

Another young woman was told by her employer she should wear a bikini while fruit picking if she wanted to get paid a bonus.

Yet Australia has had progressive sexual harassment laws since the 1980s.

The Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1984 and prohibits sex discrimination and sexual harassment in a range of areas of public life.

But still we have not been able to prevent sexual harassment in this country.

I’m often told that this problem will be solved by generational change. Recent work to examine young people’s attitudes and behaviours has shown that assumption to be false.

The Human Rights Commission’s Change the Course report into sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities, as well as highlighting the high prevalence of these behaviours among young Australians, illustrated commonly
held beliefs.

We heard of a culture where women are often perceived as being less intelligent than men, where women are objectified and where sexual harassment and sexual assault are seen as a normal part of the university experience.

People who reported sexual harassment were often blamed for what happened to them or simply not believed.

One woman reported her sexual assault to her college only to be asked about her drinking habits

We require response systems that allow people to raise concerns, that provide support and avoid causing further harm, that provide a confidential, prompt and fair process for everyone involved.

However, I also think that we need to stop assuming that reporting processes and legal systems will solve this problem.

We need to see more action taken to prevent these behaviours from occurring in the first place.

focus on reporting, rather than preventing, these behaviours lays the responsibility of eliminating sexual harassment at the feet of victims who, for many reasons, struggle to come forward and when they do, often find themselves more bruised by the process than the sexual harassment itself.

It is becoming clearer to everyone that we still have a long way to go and that we must all drive the changes that we wish to see in our society.

This in itself is a huge step

Published in: 
Herald Sun