A new dawn to reduce sexual harassment in the Australian workplace

7 March 2023
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Australia was at one time (in the 1970s and 1980s) lauded as being in the forefront of tackling the scourge of sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere. Since then, it has fallen behind.

Sexual harassment has remained a perennial and intractable problem in the Australian workplace – as it has in other countries.

Until the rise of the #MeToo movement, strategies for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace were static, conceptually in a strait jacket and largely ineffectual. The premise underlying virtually all policies and mechanisms for addressing sexual harassment was to cast upon the victim (mostly women in vulnerable, powerless situations) the duty of raising and pursuing instances of sexual harassment or even sexual violence as a workplace grievance. This paradigm was fundamentally flawed for a host of reasons which are now well-recognised.

The pressing need for an entirely new approach gave rise to the appointment by the Federal Government in 2018 of a Commission to investigate sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. The Commission headed by Sex Discrimination Commissioner; Kate Jenkins completed its report entitled Respect@Work in 2020.

The report ultimately contained 55 recommendations for a comprehensive overhaul of the legislative and administrative approach to sexual harassment. The conceptual key underpinning the report as a whole is that employers must bear the duty of ensuring as far as possible that workplaces are not environments where sexual harassment or violence can emerge or take root.

Reflecting on the report, Kate Jenkins said:

After many years of advocacy and building evidence, Australia is now at a turning point on sexual harassment, sexual assault, gender-based-violence and gender equality. Our community is demanding change…  and I am proud of the Commission’s work to guide the practical steps to achieve that change”

The Albanese Government committed itself to implementing all 55 recommendations of the report and indeed in December, 2022 a raft of legislative provisions went through the Federal Parliament. The new laws make it clear that employers are expected to act proactively and decisively in instituting measures to try to eliminate sexual harassment. Statutory bodies are now given powers of enforcement-they can investigate if they suspect that employers are not carrying out their duties under the legislation and can issue enforcement orders.

These new laws may well herald a new dawn for the constant endeavour to reduce, if not eliminate, the damage caused by sexual harassment in our workplaces.

This is the first of three articles in Symmetra’s series on Respect at Work.  The next articles will examine the legislative changes in more detail and also give consideration to the most effective methodologies employers could use for fulfilling their new obligations under the law.