Sexual harassment laws in need of review
Most people claim to condemn harassment and bullying, but a recent Bureau of Statistics survey of 21,000 women shows as many as half of all women in Australia have been sexually harassed. Evidently something is still terribly wrong, despite significant cultural and legal progress in past decades. This is made clear by the anger expressed loud and clear by the #MeToo movement, by the women marching in the streets, by the outcry the world over.
Now that there is appetite for change, many argue it is time to review and reform regulations against workplace harassment.
In a nation where not only half the female workforce is sexually harassed, but the leading preventable cause of death and illness for women aged 18 to 44 is violence by a partner or former partner, it is a particularly potent argument. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are closely related.
The time limit for lodging complaints with the Australian Human Rights Commission was recently halved to six months. Sexual harassment is not explicitly outlawed un
der the Fair Work Act – it is prohibited by the Sex Discrimination Act, which involves a lengthy conciliation process. This blocks immediate intervention – through, for example, an urgent stop order from the Fair Work Commission. Should a complaint be lodged after six months, the law provides for the commission to pass the case off to another authority.
State-based laws and agencies also can hear sexual harassment complaints. It all seems unduly convoluted.Momentum for change is building. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins says the rise in the number of women in the workplace and changing community expectations compel a review of sexual harassment laws, particularly given the ‘‘global conversation’’ about the treatment of women by men in positions of corporate and institutional power.
The core problem is unacceptable behaviour – which suggests a lack of awareness or a feeling of entitlement, or both. It might be that the laws are not being sufficiently enforced, but it is reasonable to review them, given that they have been around for about three decades.
It is not only women who are being treated appallingly in the land of ‘‘a fair go’’. There is an ongoing battle to reduce bullying in offices and schools.
Anti-bullying reforms in place since the start of 2014 have given Fair Work powers to intervene to stamp out the aggression and harassment that can torment people in their workplaces, but any review of sexual harassment laws should also look at these powers through the lens of gender and sexuality discrimination.
The sexual harassment scandals that have rocked workplaces throughout Australia, from Melbourne City Council to the Australian Football League to powerhouse accountancy firms, have all exposed the gap between the best intentions and the reality of policing and prosecuting complaints.
Clearer procedures and definitions, genuine commitment to reform and independent and well-supported resources to deal with sexual harassment complaints could resolve issues in future in ways far better than we have managed thus far.
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