Sexually permeated workplaces: Not working for women

Speech Delivered by Pru Goward, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner

15 August 2002
National Association of Women in Construction
Breakfast Seminar Melbourne.

  • Thank you for inviting me here this morning. I am delighted to have been asked to speak at your breakfast seminar.
  • This morning I would like to address two issues:

    1. Work and family and
    2. Working in a sexually permeated or sexually hostile work environment.

  • Alone these issues are huge - each could be the subject of its own address.
  • The first issue is about you as women who work. The second is about you as women who work in a male dominated industry.
  • Both however are essentially about the same thing - the disadvantage faced by women in the workforce today.
  • Why at a time when more women are completing school, entering university and embarking on careers than ever before are we still talking about the workplace disadvantage faced by women? Why are we here this morning?
  • We are talking about it because there are still pay inequities; gender gaps in many professions; and the existence of a glass ceiling.
  • Women still only earn 84 cents to the male dollar; they still only account for 3 per cent of senior management positions; and they still only hold 1.3 per cent of executive positions.
  • Every year at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission we receive complaints of sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace and sexually permeated or sexually hostile work environments continue to exist.

    Sexually permeated or sexually hostile work environments

  • Working in the male dominated construction industry I am sure you are all too familiar with this type of work environment - if not through your own first hand experience, then through the experiences of your colleagues.
  • This is why we find organisations such as women in construction and women in policing. You need each other.
  • The display of pornographic material, the consistent talk about sex, the crude conversations and jokes and sexual innuendos often occur on male dominated work sites - that's why they are called sexually hostile workplaces.
  • It's just something you don't have to put up with because you are the 'sheila' amongst the 'blokes'.
  • In a case involving the display of pornography on a construction site, which I will discuss in more detail later, it was held that one of the conditions of employment is quiet enjoyment of it. This concept not only includes freedom from physical intrusion or from being harassed, physically molested...but extends to not having to work in an unsought sexually permeated work environment.
  • For many women in male dominated industries quiet enjoyment of employment is not a given.
  • In fact, hostile work environments often act as a deterrent for women who have, despite earlier deterrents still made the decision to enter male dominated industries.
  • The attrition rate, for example, of female apprentices with a particular mining company in the 1990s was markedly higher than the male rate. Less than half of their female apprentices finished the four year apprenticeship (5 out of 11) in the early 90s.[1] In the mid 90s this figure showed no sign of increasing - three out of five female apprentices cancelled their apprenticeships before they were finished.
  • The experiences of females in male dominated industries - in particular the reality of working in a sexually permeated work environment is undoubtedly a reason why women remain less inclined to enter these non-traditional areas.
  • Let me give you some examples of the type of sexually permeated workplaces that were deemed unacceptable by courts in recent years.

    Example One:
    Hopper v Mount Isa Mines Ltd and others (1997) EOC 92-87

  • A young woman began a diesel fitter mechanic apprenticeship with Mount Isa Mines. She hoped to qualify as a diesel fitter mechanic and use that qualification to gain entry to an engineering degree at university.
  • Initially there was a lot of resistance from the men at the company towards having a woman work underground. Objections were raised about the facilities, the roughness of the crew. The training foreman even admitted that female apprentices have to prove their worth in a way that another apprentice would not.
  • No training was given to the men, most of whom were working alongside women for the first time. The women would have to make all of the adjustments.
  • The female apprentice found that said that she got on well at the beginning, although there was some good natured joking about the fact that she and the other woman employed had got the job that the men in the company wanted.
  • From about six months into the apprenticeship, and until she resigned two years later, the woman was subject to sexual harassment and discrimination. While it was not continuous it was persistent throughout that period.
  • Apart from having to deal with personal slurs about her sex life, she had to work in a sexually permeated workplace - Playboy, Picture and People magazines were regularly strewn across tables in the eating area and there were posters of half dressed women throughout the mobile workshop and on walls and lockers underground.
  • The pictures disturbed the apprentice, but she faced a dilemma about what to do. She said that she wasn't offended by them because she didn't want to cause any trouble. She did not know how to complain without causing huge unrest where she was working.
  • When she was transferred to an underground copper mine nothing was done to prepare the work area for it's first female apprentice - no new toilet was installed and there was no privacy in the very primitive toilets that were there.
  • In fact there were no separate toilets in any of the mining areas she worked. The toilets were not very private so she was forced to go in the dark. She left her miner's light on outside to let people know she was in there. There were no doors to the toilets, merely a low wall in front of them separating them from the main tunnel. There were two toilets side by side in this manner. Modification would have been simple but it was not even thought about.
  • She was subject to assessment comments which were based on her gender - rather than her ability. For example, one assessor wrote of her performance, "unfortunately square pegs do not fit in round holes and a petite girl is way out of her depth in an underground environment. She is very pleasant to have around but a waste as far as being a useful tradesperson".
  • The apprentice quit after two years (the whole apprenticeship was for four years). She found herself unable to work in her chosen field. As a result she had to dramatically alter her career aspirations. She took the company to the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Tribunal.
  • The company was found liable for acts of sexual harassment committed against the female apprentice by various male employers over a period of several months.
  • She was awarded $48,742 in damages including compensation for hurt and humiliation and loss of income.
  • The company never ensured that supervisors passed on information about sexual harassment and sex discrimination to employees nor did it develop any system to educate employees about anti-discrimination and sexual harassment.
  • The tribunal also found that mining crews were not prepared for the induction of women into a previously all male workplace, a situation that was likely to cause problems if not managed properly.

    Example 2:
    Horne & McIntosh v Press Clough Joint Venture (1994) EOC 92-556

  • Two female construction workers were employed as trades assistants in 1990 to clean amenities and 'crib rooms' (recreation rooms) on a building site which employed nearly 3000 men. The women complained about a sexually explicit poster in a supervisor's office.
  • As a result, more posters and ones of an increasingly pornographic nature were placed around the building site. Clearly with the intention of angering, frightening and harassing the two women. The women were also subjected to verbal abuse and intimidation.
  • When the women sought assistance from the union organiser of the Metals and Engineering Workers' Union (MEWU), their complaints weren't taken seriously and more explicit nude posters were then displayed in the union office.
  • The women successfully brought a complaint of sexual harassment before the WA Equal Opportunity Tribunal against the Employer and the Union. The women were awarded $92,000 in damages.
  • This case was not about the censorship of pornographic images. It was about the right of women to work in a respectful environment where they are treated as equals.
  • Women, like all workers, deserve the right to work in respectful environments. They will not work in environments where they are not respected. They will not work sexually permeated work environments.
  • Most women do not complain. They express this dissent by not working in these fields or getting out. Low numbers of women in male dominated fields reflect this.
  • The construction industry for example, remains an area where women are poorly represented.
  • In fact, women in construction suffer more gender bias than women employed in any other industry in Australia.
  • The industry is also one of the poorest performing in Affirmative Action and Equal Employment Opportunity.
  • It is no wonder then that in May 2002 it was reported in the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry that women, who make up 44 per cent of the overall workforce in Australia today, make up only 13 per cent of employees in this industry.
  • In 1998 the then Affirmative Action Agency found that the majority of women employed in the construction industry were in para-professional positions; the smallest group were those working in trades or as labourers.
  • Whether this figure is increasing or declining is debatable. In 1998 the then Affirmative Action Agency reported that 12 per cent of those employed in construction and building were women. We have then in 5 years a one per cent increase.
  • Alternatively, Victorian statistics show that since 1994 women's share of enrolments in the Building & Construction industry vocational education and training has declined from 5.9 percent to 4.3 percent in 2000.
  • This decline occurs at a time when women are steadily making inroads into other male dominated careers. The number of women studying engineering for example continues to increase annually. It also occurs as the proportion of female enrolments in vocational education and training (VET) in Victoria continues to gradually increase - from 45.6% in 1994 to 48.2% in 2000.
  • Why is this?
  • According to a study undertaken by a student at the University of Newcastle one of the reasons is because parents aren't encouraging their daughters to go into construction.
  • Lack of encouragement for young women to enter non traditional roles has always been a problem - and it is not just by parents.
  • Gender stereotypes prevail throughout society and influence the choices we all make.
  • School career advisors need to be educated on the opportunities for women in the construction industry and establishing effective promotional frameworks to challenge the stereotypes.
  • Women who have succeeded in the industry should act as mentors for other women and mentoring programs should be established for women while they are studying a career in construction.
  • How often do you hear how women are good communicators, best in people oriented jobs and caring professions…they are not good with numbers or operating machinery or in more technical jobs. Maybe it's been said about you.
  • Although not specifically sexual, these type of gender-related comments and stereotypes exist not only for young women, but for those women who, despite their 'unsuitable predisposition' decide that they do want to work in the construction industry.
  • According to the CFMEU complaints of overt sexual harassment in the construction industry have declined. What women do commonly experience however is an unwanted paternalism from their male colleagues - who seem to believe they need to be looked after and protected on construction sites.
  • This 'caring' behaviour is unwarranted and detrimental to women. It fosters the attitude that their position on a construction site is out of the ordinary, and not quite up to it. This makes it increasingly difficult for women to progress in this industry.
  • The impact of a sexually permeated environment on a women's career progress cannot be underestimated - if a work environment is unable to accommodate women's sanitary needs, it is unlikely that it will be able to accommodate the greater needs of women in the workforce - primarily the need to balance work and family.
  • It is so difficult for women in traditional areas of employment to achieve this balance. The problem is exacerbated for women in non-traditional areas of employment - where there are less women and more sexually hostile work environments.

    Workplace disadvantage as a result of having to balance work and family

  • I would like to use my remaining time to consider this broader issue, which is the root cause of the workplace and career disadvantage that women experience today whether working in traditional or non traditional areas of employment - the need to balance work and family.
  • How is it that men and women, who start out on their life journeys much the same end up in such vastly different circumstances in the workforce?
  • One reason dominates over all others.
  • Motherhood.
  • Between the ages of 20 and 24 for example, full time female employees earn about 92 per cent of what their male counterparts earn. [2]
  • This gap - although not enormous, should surprise us given the high numbers of female graduates and the almost 50-50 participation in all forms of post-secondary education.
  • It gets worse.
  • The average age at which women have their first child is now 29.8.
  • For men and women in full time work, after the age of thirty, overall that ratio is 84 per cent.
  • Some of this is because the paid work women do is "undervalued", or women do not bargain as hard for wage increases as men, or even that women may be more contented on lower wages than men, but mostly it is because women choose jobs, even full time jobs, that enable them to put their families first.
  • These jobs pay less.
  • They do not take those periods of "acting manager" at the store on the far side of town, because it makes it harder to drop kids at school or pick them up afterwards.
  • They do not take the "acting promotion" interstate for two months because they cannot leave their children.
  • They try to leave the office on time because they have children to collect and care for.
  • Occasionally they ask for lunch hours at times that fit in with children's after-school needs, earning them the resentment of colleagues and the disapproval of their boss.
  • In the past women streamed themselves into careers that suited families, such as teaching and nursing, and got stuck in jobs that were undervalued precisely because they were done by women.
  • Apart from students and trainees, the largest group of part time and casual workers are mothers.
  • Part time and casual work, ironically, gives women the opportunity to fit around their families.
  • Sure, it is difficult to find well paid part time or casual work (the bulk is in hospitality and retail) and extremely difficult to find it at the professional or managerial end of the labour market, but it remains the preferred form of work for women with families.
  • It is a great pity that part time work is not better developed in Australia; although we have one of the most casualised work-forces in the world, and one of the highest proportions of part time workers, we do not have a systemic approach to part time work.
  • That is, it is very difficult to get part time work at a middle, let alone senior, level, while formal child care on a part-time or shift basis is almost impossible.
  • For this reason many women sit unhappily in full time jobs or leave the work force altogether, venturing back only as a casual nurse doing weekend night shifts when her partner can mind the kids, or doing a bit of evening waitressing or weekend work in a shop, again, when hubby can mind the kids.
  • This all occurs because not only are women the bearers of children, but they usually bear the major responsibility for the subsequent care of children.

Addressing female workplace disadvantage

  • Highlighting the workplace disadvantage faced by women today does not need to be a frustrating experience. Rather it can be seen as setting the parameters of our challenge - ensuring we have a workforce that works for women.
  • It is not a challenge that we can address alone. There needs to be commitment from employers, all employees and all of society to making the workforce work for women.
  • As women who work we know how the workforce will work for us.
  • We can guide these changes so that the workforce fosters our needs and is a place where we are respected and not harassed.
  • As women in a male dominated industry do not tolerate sexually permeated workplaces. The outcome of the two cases I raised today send a message, loud and clear, that you do not have to.
  • Women in male dominated industries often have little contact with other women in their industries. Establish and foster contacts, generate discussion on issues relevant to you and don't keep it on the sidelines. Introduce mentoring programmes for women entering the construction industry.
  • You need to be proactive. We all do.
  • We need to work together to ensure that a suite of measures is introduced to adequately address the need to balance work and family. Paid maternity leave is part of this. But there is a bigger picture - we need to create a workforce that is more flexible in it's work practices and attitudes towards women - because we work, and we have children.

1. See discussion in Hopper v Mount Isa Mines Ltd and others (1997) EOC 92-87.
2. ABS 6310.0 Employee Earnings and Benefits Catalogue August 2001, 25.

Last updated 16 August 2002