Sexual harassment at work: generating change, beyond hashtag campaigns

Sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is a serious problem.

In recent weeks, awareness of the issue has gone viral with the #MeToo campaign, following the many Harvey Weinstein allegations. It has prompted more women to speak out, which is incredibly important. But it won’t resolve the problem. Not even close.

In Australia, sexual harassment is defined as ‘any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated’.

Sexual harassment at work is against the law. There are legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. Still, many choose not to report it. Like most people, I am hopeful this will change over time, and speaking up will become the new normal.

Former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, also made this pertinent statement on an SBS Insights episode on sexual harassment in 2015:

“Sexual harassment doesn’t jump out of nowhere, it grows in organisations where demeaning attitudes about women are okay and where there’s no courageous leadership.”

While men are also victims of sexual harassment, the statistics spell out that sexual harassment disproportionately affects women, with one in five experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace at some time.

With the issue squarely in the spotlight, it is vital we work together to generate real and meaningful structural and behavioural change in our workplaces. This is not about jumping on a bandwagon. This is about building more inclusive cultures, values and respect.

Preventing sexual harassment at work takes more than goodwill, it demands structural change, including a clear sexual harassment policy.  The Australian Human Rights Commission provides comprehensive guidelines for employers, including these five steps:

  1. Get high-level management support
  2. Write and implement a sexual harassment policy
  3. Provide regular training and information on sexual harassment to all staff and management
  4. Encourage appropriate conduct by managers
  5. Create a positive workplace environment

Structural and behavioural change starts at the top. As a leader, what kind of workplace culture do you want to create? Are you prepared to be a champion of change? Have you asked the hard questions about what it’s really like to work in your organisation?

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