Australia

'Fear for career' stops workplace harassment victims coming forward

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Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins spoke to SBS News about the barriers stopping victims of sexual harassment in the workplace coming forward and making a complaint.

Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins says "fear for career" is a common reason women don't speak up or make complaints about sexual harassment. 

Her comments come after ABC journalist Ashleigh Raper reluctantly released a statement alleging then NSW opposition leader Luke Foley put his hand down her dress. 

The incident happened at a Sydney bar after a Christmas function in 2016 and Ms Raper said she decided not to say anything, partly because she was worried it would cost her the position of state political reporter. 

Ms Raper's reluctance to come forward is not uncommon. The largest ever national survey on the issue conducted earlier this year, found only 17 per cent of people who experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years had made a formal complaint.

Ms Jenkins told SBS News one of the most difficult barriers victims of sexual harassment face when wanting to make a complaint is knowing their job is secure.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
SBS News

"I think the situation that many men and women find when they want to make a complaint of sexual harassment is the process is challenging, they fear for their careers, they fear their confidentially will be breached and it’s a big reason why people don’t want to raise sexual harassment complaints," she told SBS News.

In June 2018 the commissioner announced a national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace.

All cases cause damage

As part of the inquiry, Ms Jenkins is looking at what can be done to prevent harassment occurring in the workplace and what is the best procedure to respond to an allegation.

Ms Jenkins said sexual harassment is very common in the workplace, despite only a small number of high profile cases garnering media attention.

“I think the important thing to remember is some cases make the media, but a lot don’t, but they all do cause damage," she said.

"There is a really good reason why we are conducting a national inquiry because people are really reluctant to complain but they do want it to stop and we need to find a better way."

The sex discrimination commissioner said workplaces are beginning to reach out for guidance on the best way to deal with a complaint.

“I think the fact that it is so common means we need to do more. But I do think that employers are beginning to cry out for more help, more guidance on what to do," she said.

"[It is] more than just righting a policy and conducting online training, they have realised this is a problem we need to change and that leaders need to step up and really make clear to staff what is expected."

So far the national inquiry team has conducted consultation in Darwin, Hobart, Perth, Geraldton and Adelaide.

Ms Jenkins said Australians can to be part of the inquiry to make a submission or attend a consultation.

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