Sexual harassment and the best way to prevent and address in the workplace is not a new issue, but sexual harassment has been in the spotlight with the rise of the #MeToo movement in the last few years. Although Me Too actually began in 2006, the hashtag #MeToo emerged in 2017 when accusations of sexual assault and sexual harassment were brought against Harvey Weinstein and his film company.

It soon became evident that Weinstein’s behaviour was known within the industry and the company, but had been tolerated because of his position and influence within the film industry. Other employees and actresses began to speak out and the movement grew, as it became evident that Weinstein’s behaviour had been further hidden from scrutiny by the use of non-disclosure agreements so that women who had been victims of sexual assault or harassment were prevented from sharing this knowledge with others. The last few years have brought a re-examination of how sexual harassment is dealt with in the workplace.

In Australia, the report of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins was eagerly awaited. Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report, delivered in March 2020 has also highlighted the need to take a new approach in addressing sexual harassment at work.

Common sense suggests that when an action is legally prohibited, such actions generally stop. While this may be true for actions easily recognised as abhorrent, the same is not true for actions that are part of accepted social structures, such as sexual harassment.

Demeaning behaviour still common

While unwanted sexual attention in the workplace – requests for sexual favours in exchange for opportunities, such as in Harvey Weinstein’s case – is what is most often thought of when sexual harassment is mentioned, this is actually the least common sort of sexual harassment.

Far more common, though prohibited by workplace policies and recognised as discrimination, is the sort of behaviour that demeans people because of gender or departure from traditional gender norms. This is why men who take paternity leave or pick up kids from school are viewed as “soft” or women in leadership roles are labelled “bossy”, and why LGTBIQ employees are more likely to be harassed. This sort of sexual harassment – put-downs, crude remarks, sexist comments – has humiliation at its core, and is especially common in workplaces that have been traditionally male-dominated.[1]

One of the recommendations of Respect@Work was to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to include a positive duty requiring employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation, including the introduction of ‘Stop Sexual Harassment’ orders like the ‘Stop Bullying’ orders made under section 789FF of the Fair Work Act 2009.

While it is important to have a sexual harassment policy, anti-harassment training and reporting mechanisms are not enough, and years of addressing sexual harassment this way have not lessened or stopped the behaviours. Putting the responsibility on the person who has been harassed to call out the behaviour has often led to behaviour not being reported or not reported until women feel safe enough to take action — usually after they have left the employer or attained a secure position.

In addition, the reporting process itself can cause more damage, and the confidentiality of the very processes used to protect people who have been harassed can end up protecting harassers. There have been numerous examples of women not able to speak out regarding sexually harassing behaviour in the workplace because of non-disclosure agreements, confidentiality requirements and/or defamation legislation.

Complianced based training vs cultural change

As Respect@Work recognised, an emphasis on avoiding legal risk and compliance has given businesses an incentive to promote compliance-based sexual harassment training and reporting mechanisms over cultural change. While compliance is necessary, it is not the solution. Research indicates that mean and women can generally recognise when behaviour is sexual harassment, so it makes sense that traditional approaches to training employees about what sexual harassment is have had little effect on reducing the behaviour.

One of the unfortunate and unintended consequences of #MeToo has been the concern that men need to stop mentoring women in the workplace or must take steps to protect themselves from false accusations. While recent information shows that only 17% of sexual harassment is reported to employers and false reports are rare, an increased focus on sexual harassment in the workplace has created a backlash that has led to increased reluctance to employ young women, mentor women, or hold one-on-one meetings with female colleagues. Gender separation is not the answer to sexual harassment, nor is the solution to make individual men bear the responsibility for the historic sexism of the patriarchy.

A new approach to eliminating sexual harassment

Eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace requires the same sort of solutions as eliminating other types of misconduct and incivility in the workplace.

Employers need to improve the workplace culture and promote respectful behaviour so that sexual harassment is not tolerated, and that all behaviour that contributes to sexual harassment – whether gender stereotypes, sexist comments, put-downs and come-ons – is addressed.

Organisations need to:

While it may seem strange to call out small comments, or to suggest that senior personnel involve themselves in such discussion, research has shown that real change comes from not tolerating even seemingly innocuous behaviours. The most effective actions organisation can take in creating respectful culture is to ensure that respect begins at the top.

Training that centres on leadership, workplace ethos and culture, and equips all employees to engage in difficult conversations in a respectful way will prepare the ground for the conversations about sexual harassment and respect in the workplace. Sexual harassment training can and should be part of this training, and such training should focus on what causes and contributes to sexually harassing behaviour in the workplace, particularly in traditionally male-dominated workplaces where such behaviours have been normalised.

It is important for employers to support respectful workplace training and reinforce culture by taking a nuanced approach to reporting that allows people to make complaints and have those complaints handled in a manner that does not ignore concerns or make the complainant feel victimised again by the reporting process.

The sort of discussions and actions necessary to change culture and truly address sexual harassment require emotional intelligence, understanding, openness and good will. A respectful culture can have these discussions. And a respectful culture can recognise that people can grow, learn and change behaviour to create a happier and more accepting workplace culture for employees regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

[1] https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/busting-the-myths-about-sexual-harassment

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