Earlier this week, I visited Darwin to hold consultations and meetings for the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into workplace sexual harassment.
Despite the sweltering heat – I’m a born and bred Melburnian – it was a great week.
This was my second visit to the Northern Territory since I began my term as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner in 2016. As always, I was struck by the resilience of the people I met in Darwin. I heard from some amazing women who courageously shared their devastating experiences of sexual harassment and told me about some of the specific challenges faced by workers in the NT.
The Northern Territory is known for its high proportion of fly-in fly-out workers employed in industries like construction and mining. My team and I spoke to women working in these male-dominated industries and heard that sexual harassment is still common. We heard some alarming stories from the past of overtly sexist and sexual behaviour, like work meetings and Christmas parties being held in topless bars.
People told us that sexualised comments and jokes are often just part of the culture in male-dominated workplaces, and while some men do recognise that this behaviour is wrong and inappropriate, they don’t speak up because they are afraid of losing the respect of their other male colleagues.
However we also heard that things are starting to change as more and more women enter these formerly male-dominated workplaces, with one woman saying ‘it’s harder to forget that there’s a woman in the room when there’s a lot of you’.
Another common theme in the Territory was the heightened risk of sexual harassment and assault experienced by people working in remote locations and sharing living quarters with colleagues. In these situations, the boundaries between work time and social life can become blurred and create situations that are unsafe for women and men. I even heard accounts of women being raped on work sites.
The challenges of remote work were raised as an issue for women in mining and construction, who were sometimes one of five women in a 2000 person camp, as well as for female nurses, doctors, social workers and teachers who were posted to small communities. The risks were even greater for women working in communities lacking local infrastructure, such as a hospital or police station.
I was told to think of Darwin ‘as a small town, rather than a capital city’. While Darwin’s size creates a beautiful sense of community among residents, it also creates huge barriers to reporting sexual harassment. Some people told us that to get along here, you need to put up with sexism and sexual conduct, because complaining would risk your job, safety, family and friends. One woman said the reason she hadn’t told anyone about her experiences was that she feels that if she comes forward, she will hurt her family and other people around her, and affect her future in Darwin.
More than anywhere else so far, I heard of the need for peer support and for bystanders to sexual harassment to take action and speak up about these behaviours. The importance of men standing up against sexist behaviours was particularly clear. Women spoke of the devastation they felt when they weren’t believed by co-workers they thought of as friends, or when they were sexually harassed in front of a room full of people and no one took action. I heard of the empowerment people felt when working with leaders – both male and female – who were supportive of women in the workplace.
I was struck by the importance of targeted, specialised women’s services, like the NT Working Women’s Centre, to provide support to women who have experienced workplace sexual harassment.
I heard from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women about the importance of having complaints processes which are culturally appropriate and of being able to speak to someone who has an appreciation of the specific challenges they face. It is clear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women must be consulted in the development of workplace policies and procedures.
It is clear that Territorians love living in the NT. They described it as a place where people come to get away from the world, a place which is proud of doing things differently and, more recently, as a place of opportunity, attracting southerners to new work opportunities.
The challenge for the Territory and its workplaces is to attract and retain a new generation of workers. It is clear that eliminating sexual harassment at work will be essential if the Northern Territory wants its population to grow and thrive.
I am so grateful to the people I met this week for sharing their unique stories and perspectives. At its heart, this is what this National Inquiry is all about: ensuring that all Australians can have a voice on this issue and contribute their ideas for long-lasting change.