In an office party at an unnamed Australian workplace, a male manager, dressed as Santa, invites a line of younger, female colleagues to sit on his lap to receive a Christmas present. One woman shakes his hand and later reports the behaviour.
A few months later, she has been branded an “angry woman” by human resources and left the company. The manager, with his Santa suit, has been promoted.
In another workplace, the only woman on a remote mine site is made to drive 3km to the public toilets because facilities are not made available for her on site. On one shift, a colleague rapes her. Her manager, told of the allegations, tells her to “prove it”.
Later, at another job, she is told she is “the prettiest girl” by a man with softcore pornography displayed on his work computer.
“I felt like I had to fight every day just to be able to work as a female,” she says.
It was a significant jump from previous surveys, which the AHRC attributed to a change in methodology that saw many more people surveyed, including a younger cohort of 15- to 18-year-olds.
The RMIT professor Sara Charlesworth said the survey was also conducted in a period of “increased awareness”, coming several months into the #MeToo movement, which “clearly had some kind of impact” on results.
The results of the inquiry are not expected for some time, but the submissions, released ahead of International Women’s Day on Friday, paint a depressing picture.
They describe a culture of sexism and sexual harassment that is persistent and pervasive.
The behaviour runs from serious offences of sexual assault and sexual coercion to pervasive and constant levels of casual sexism and belittling.
Many said they did not feel comfortable reporting harassment for fear of the damage to their career or professional reputation.
“I feel so much shame,” wrote one woman who did not complain after a drunken boss groped her breasts and made derogatory comments at an office party, or when another male colleague followed her into a toilet cubicle and demanded a kiss.
“I still blame myself… I was too friendly. I didn’t check behind me to ensure I wasn’t being followed. I wore the wrong dress.”
The fear of professional consequences is not unfounded. One in five people who make a complaint about sexual harassment at the workplace are punished for doing so or end up quitting their job.
Complaints processes that are intended to protect victims end up ostracising them further. Those who reported harassment said they eventually left or were pushed out of the company, while perpetrators remained.
In many cases, victims revealed they were no longer able to work at all.
Victorian Legal Aid has handled 994 sexual harassment and sex discrimination cases in the past five years. In 83% of cases the complaint was brought by a woman and in 78% of cases the complainant, by the time they were dealing with lawyers, had been diagnosed with a mental illness.
“We have seen women unable to return to the workforce at all,” says the equality law project manager Melanie Schleiger. “We have seen clients whose health has suffered terribly because of the workplace sexual harassment.
“One client told us that they have gone from being a confident, successful career woman to someone who now can’t walk down her own street after dark.
“Sexual harassment can cause such high levels of fear, depression and anxiety that for a number of our clients they could no longer work or even leave their home.”
Similar stories were told to the AHRC inquiry.
In one case, a research scientist with 20 years experience asked to move to a different area to escape pervasive sexual harassment and was told “you won’t find it any less sexist elsewhere”.
“The moment I started to challenge the dominant culture, my career began to wither,” she wrote.
Schleiger says that sexual harassment should be dealt with as a workplace health and safety issue. Australian workplaces have a reputation for being proactive about safety. Placing sexual harassment on the list of risks for which workers need to perform a spot safety check could begin to change centuries of ingrained sexism.
“There are people who hold negative attitudes towards women and will sexually harass if they feel that the workplace climate will allow them to get away with it,” she says. “In those workplaces, victims won’t report sexual harassment. It becomes a cycle of permitting and encouraging poor behaviour.”
Framing sexual harassment as an occupational health and safety issue would also lift the focus off individual complainants, who face being ostracised as “troublemakers”, and back to the workplace systems which allowed the behaviour to occur.
It’s an approach supported by key organisations and experts.
“The abject failure of our current system has been to individualise the problem,” Charlesworth says. “If you are sexually harassed, it’s up to you to make the complaint, it’s up to you to wear the odium of making the complaint, it’s up to you to wear the risk of it and the damage, and if you take your complaint to the commission or a tribunal or court, you wear the risk all the way along.”
One woman who complained of being indecently assaulted by a female colleague at work, who groped her during a coffee break, told the AHRC that the incident and subsequent reporting process “has ruined my life”.
“I don’t have an income,” she writes. “I have to deal with PTSD, lack of sleep... my car might be repossessed because I can’t repay the instalments. I might have to sell my house.
“This is why people don’t speak up. Why would they?”
Charlesworth says that people are more likely to report harassment in “archetypal” cases: a senior man with a junior female colleague in circumstances where they “do something physical … slam you up against the filing cabinet for example.”
The most common form of sexual harassment, non-physical inappropriate conduct by coworkers, is the least reported. There is a need, says Charlesworth, for agencies or people within organisations who are able to provide independent advice to employees about what constitutes harassment, and what their actions are, without immediately recording a complaint.
She says strengthening provisions around sexual harassment in the Fair Work Act, as well as in workplace safety laws, would give victims more options for redress.
“It is about making sure that the workplace is safe for all workers,” she says.