Expert urges safety rethink
An expert on women’s rights and safety says sexual harassment in the workplace should be treated as an OHS issue.
A recent study commissioned by the Victorian Trades Hall Council found that 64 per cent of women had experienced sexual harassment or violence in their workplace.
Nineteen per cent had left a secure job because they did not feel safe.
An earlier survey of male and female workers in the hospitality industry in Victoria found over 85 per cent had been sexually harassed at work.
“Given that more than one Australian women per week is killed by a partner or former domestic partner and eight in 10 women aged 18 to 24 were harassed on the street in the past year, it's not surprising that the same phenomenon is prevalence in our workplaces,” says Lisa Heap, an adjunct professor at the Australian Catholic University's Institute for Religion Politics and Society and former leader of the women's rights and safety initiative at the Victorian Trades Hall Council.
“Violent behaviour and the underlying sexist assumptions and attitudes that drive it don't stop at the factory gate or the office door.
“This violence is injuring women. The injuries can be physical and psychosocial. They include physical injury and illness, feelings of isolation and exclusion the loss of secure employment and family dislocation. In some instances, they result in post-traumatic stress disorders.”
Sexual harassment brings major costs for businesses too - increasing costs of recruitment due to lower retention, reducing morale and increasing absenteeism, and causing repetitional damage associated with failure to address issues.
She says workplace health and safety regulators need to come up with new responses to remove this hazard from the workplace.
“They could address this risk by moving women into supervisory and leadership roles, providing more secure employment arrangements and providing programs for particularly vulnerable groups of workers, to enable them to understand their employment rights,” Dr Heap said in a recent article.
“Presuming that women will be good at getting the organising, administrative and caring work done reinforces sexist attitudes and behaviours.
“Many of the accepted traditional ways of doing and rewarding work in organisations are in fact perpetuating a climate within which sexism and violence against women can permeate.
“If employers don't accept gendered violence as a serious health and safety risk that is likely to be present in their workplaces, we will continue to have women being injured by this violence.
“In the past, too much time has been spent on systems of documenting and reporting experiences of violence. Given what we now know about its prevalence at work and in the community, it's time to move the emphasis to stopping the violence before it occurs.
“This will only happen when employers accept it as a serious health and safety risk, address its underlying causes and take the necessary steps to eliminate it.”