'I was sexually assaulted in my own office'

More than one third of Australian women say they have been sexually harassed or discriminated against at work. The #MeToo movement has encouraged more women to speak out, and law firms say they are being inundated with workplace sexual harassment complaints.

Almost half of women who have been sexually harassed at work say they did not report their abuse because they feared no action would be taken, new research has found.

For a significant portion of them, this was also because the person they reported to was the perpetrator of the harassment or discrimination.

The findings are contained in a new survey, obtained exclusively by SBS News, ahead of International Women’s Day.

The report from Censuswide, commissioned by Shine Lawyers, polled more than 2000 Australians between February 27 and March 1, 2018.

It found more than a third of women reported having experienced harassment or discrimination at work.

Thirty-three per cent of women and 34 per cent of men said they witnessed it happening to colleagues, while one in eight men surveyed admitted to being perpetrators.

Forty-five per cent of women who said they did not report the harassment to a senior member said it was because they did not think anything would be done about their complaint.

Of those who did not report the harassment, 36 per cent said it was because the senior member was the perpetrator.

One woman said she feared the repercussions of speaking out.

"I never reported it. I was worried I would lose my job," she said, according to the report.

Another described the harassment as "accidental touching" to innuendo and questions about sex, while one reported having her physical looks being remarked upon.

“They said my hair was too big. I should wear less revealing clothes.”

‘I felt shattered’: A victim’s story

Jemma Ewin, who won a major sexual harassment case five years ago, told SBS News there are many barriers for women to report their experiences, such as the fear of not being believed and a gender power imbalance.

The chartered accountant is still reeling from the trauma of her harassment at work almost a decade ago. In 2013, a judge found she was the victim of unwanted sex perpetrated by a former co-worker.

Jemma Ewin.
Source: SBS News

“I was assaulted, and unconscious and sexually assaulted within my own workplace in my own office,” she told SBS News.

“I felt utterly shattered. I didn’t want to go to work and I continued to work in the very same office that I was sexually assaulted for at least another three weeks."

Sexual harassment and assault at work: Jemma Ewin's story

And while she was awarded almost half a million dollars in a record compensation, Ms Ewin said she had only received $34,000 of that.

But the greater toll has been on her professional and personal life.

“It has far-reaching consequences,” she said.

“I still don't have my sense of self, I'm still rebuilding. Once you do report a lot of people walk away – professionally, personally, family – they can’t cope with the gruesome details of what you’re discussing and discussing publicly.”

Ms Ewin says while compensation for sexual harassment victims has changed as a result of her case, she believes major reform is still needed in the system to support those who have made claims.

“If limited cases come forward because it’s just too financially difficult to raise a case, the wheels of change will obviously go slow,” she said.

“I think what needs to change more is people’s attitudes, behaviours and the consequence of what happens to people who are sexually assaulted or harassed in the workplace.”

Chartered accountant Jemma Ewin won a major sexual harassment case but she is now unemployed.
Source: SBS News

And she fears women could be discouraged from seeing their claims through.

“If what’s going on truly is a completely underreported phenomenon – unless someone doesn’t report it, people won’t investigate, people won’t become aware, programs won’t be put into place about what’s acceptable behaviour,” she said.

“I most certainly do believe women should speak up - it's like shining a light on an ugly part of society.”

More women speaking up

The #MeToo movement has galvanised women across the world to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, particularly at work.

In Australia, law firms are reporting unprecedented amounts of cases and calls from women coming forward with stories of workplace harassment.

Shine Lawyers said the number of workplace sexual harassment cases it is now investigating has doubled since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke late last year.

“We've seen an almost 128 per cent increase in calls and probably more alarmingly is over 100 per cent increase in calls related to sexual harassment," Shine Lawyers Employment Law expert Will Barsby told SBS News.

“Since the Weinstein [scandal] and the #MeToo movement, people have felt more courageous and it's really all about numbers, because the more people speak up about something the more other people are inclined to share their stories as well.”

#MeToo hashtag is the campaign encouraging women to denounce experiences of sexual harassment.
Source: AAP

#MeToo movement 'instrumental'

Maurice Blackburn told SBS News it has also seen a “significant increase” in the number of women approaching the law firm as a result of the #MeToo movement.

“We’re seeing more women call the firm, but also more people make appointments to come in and see us – and more people who are actually willing to make a formal complaint to their employer or to the Australian Human Rights Commission,” employment lawyer Alex Grayson said.

“One of the really positives of the #MeToo movement is that women feel like maybe they aren’t alone and they can come forward.”

The #MeToo movement is also leading to bigger payouts for Australian victims.

A prominent workplace sexual harassment lawyer told SBS News the campaign was “instrumental” in getting a client a larger settlement than had been negotiated by previous lawyers.

The Australian Human Rights Commission says sexual harassment complaints increased slightly over the past month.

In January, it received 20 complaints of sexual harassment, which jumped to 27 in February.

In September 2017, the commission received 22 complaints, which dropped slighly the following month and rose to 24 in November.

Published 7 March 2018 at 1:50pm, updated 8 March 2018 at 8:08am
By Rashida Yosufzai