Watch: Every Response Matters | Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

When sexual harassment sneaks in, it feels like “reams of pinpricks… so normal that to call out each one would seem facetious.”

– Laura Bates, feminist scholar

As part of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence 2023, the Victorian Women’s Trust hosted a discussion between Dr Skye Charry (Associate, Insight Exchange; Associate Professor, School of Law; and Gender Equity Consultant), Luke Addinsall (Associate Insight Exchange; Social Worker and Counsellor), and Mary Crooks AO (Executive Director, Victorian Women’s Trust) on sexual harassment at work.

Sexual harassment continues to be an insidious part of workplace culture in Australia. It often starts incrementally, with mild, unwelcome sexualised jokes or banter. Join Skye, Luke and Mary as they take a deep dive into the issues at play, and the real world solutions anyone can employ at work.

Watch the video (full transcript listed below) and head to the Insight Exchange website for more information. 


Mary Crooks: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to this webinar on 5 December, a few weeks out from our Christmas break. It’s lovely to see people coming on board, even in a busy time.

Could I begin by acknowledging country. I live and work on Wurundjeri country and our organisation, the Victorian Women’s Trust, has been in a deep partnership with Koorie Women Mean Business for over three decades now, and that’s the kind of partnership where we have understood the need for paying our respects to Traditional Owners. Land has never been ceded. We pay our respects to past and present leaders. And without sounding negative, I do want to urge people to stand the ground over the next years in the face perhaps of a post-referendum outcome, where there are initiatives and efforts to roll back important processes, like acknowledgement and welcomes to country. Because that kind of rollback is fundamentally an issue of disrespect.

But welcome, everyone. Let’s get down to it, to introduce this event. Now, there are important issues that will percolate through Skye and Luke’s presentations and discussion. It’s not the forum for people to engage in discussing their own personal experiences. We do want to keep focus on the issues. But there are services available to people that would be put in the chat, and, significantly, Skye has also offered her support to anybody in need and will provide her details at the end of the event.

We do want it to be, obviously, a respectful space, and we want it to be safe and inclusive of all. What we want to achieve in the next hour is as much in-depth discussion as we can of the nature of sexual harassment, the definition of it even, the scale of it, and without spending too much time, nonetheless, but to actually come to grips with the causal dynamics of sexual harassment that can be so easily glided over. We want to provide a space, towards the end, for you to ask questions of Skye and Luke, and Ally, on the staff of the Trust, Ally will feed those into me on my behalf.

So, let’s begin by introducing our two absolutely wonderful panellists. We are very, very fortunate to have Skye and Luke step in for this at only a couple of weeks’ notice, actually. We have known Skye for many years now. We’ve had the pleasure of knowing her personally and knowing her work. We’re meeting Luke – Ally and I and staff at the Trust – for the first time today. But Dr Skye Charry, foremost of her qualifications, she’s at the School of Law, the University of New England, but she’s an indomitable and recognised expert in the field of sex discrimination law. Amongst other things, Skye conducts workplace gender audits for federal and state governments, she runs sexual harassment and cultural training for government, industry and other organisations. We first got to know Skye mainly through her quite extraordinary book in 2015, I think it was published, called Whispers from the Bush, which was a look at the kind of sexual harassment, even less visible than perhaps a lot of urban-based workplace harassment, for a whole lot of reasons why that invisibility is layered. And it was through her book, and working with Skye, that we then went on and made a film with Skye’s guardianship called Grace Under Fire, which picks up this issue of sexual harassment affecting rural women, in particular. And that video, that great little video, can still be seen on the Women’s Trust website, Grace Under Fire.

So, welcome to Skye. To Luke, a great welcome to you too. Luke is a qualified and accredited mental health social worker and counsellor. He has extensive experience in working with men who use violence, counselling, operating behaviour change programs, training and consultancy. He has recently completed his term as co-chair of the NSW Men’s Behaviour Change Network, and frankly, I can’t wait to have another discussion with Luke down the track because this lack of emphasis and awareness of the importance of men’s behaviour change programs is something that’s been bugging me, I must say, for a few years.

But let’s move on with our wonderful two panellists. A series of questions and answers to Skye and to Luke, and then Skye and Luke, please feel free to butt in and build on each other’s responses so that we can get maximum quality in the short time. But I do want to begin with you, Skye. You have worked in the field for a long time and there might well be people coming online today who are sort of a bit new to the issue, but sometimes I feel as though maybe even public debates that people are losing sight of the absolute essence of the issue of sexual harassment. So, the first question I want to put to you is 3-part. I want you to give us a really, really good working definition that’s not couched in legalese. And I want you to address quickly the scale of the problem in this country. And then, thirdly, I want us to pinpoint what are the crucial dynamics at play that lead to sexual harassment? So, it’s a tall order. I know you’re up for it. So, let’s start with your best working definition of “sexual harassment”.

Skye Charry: Well, thank you, Mary, and thank you, everyone, for being with us this morning. Mary, thank you for the first part of your question around the definition. And what I’d like to do is, firstly, draw our attention to what the commonwealth law tells us in broad-brush terms about that definition, and then I’d like to say something to make sense of it, to make meaning of it. So, the commonwealth law is very clear that there are a number of elements to be satisfied when we’re thinking about the, you know, the definition. The first is that we are dealing with behaviour always, which is unwelcome and unwanted. Now, that’s our first consideration because that, you know, is an objective – sorry, a subjective test, such that you or I will make a determination about whether or not the behaviour that we’re experiencing is welcome or not. There is a clear definition, then, to be made between mutual, cons sensual, beautiful human interaction and behaviour that is not that at all, behaviour that makes us feel something different. And I’m going to say something about what that is, in a moment. So, the first element is unwelcome and unwanted – always.

The next element is that it must be sexualised behaviour. Now, this separates us from other forms of harm in the workplace, like, for example, bullying, because the courts have explained time and time again that there is a spectrum of behaviour ranging from things like unwelcome staring and leering, at one end, all the way through to the most grotesque, criminal forms of unwelcome sexualised behaviour, which is, you know, sexual assault and some related behaviours that are grotesque and at the worst end of the scale. There are all sorts of behaviours that the courts have indicated will fit along that sort of spectrum as well. And when I talk about a spectrum, I don’t mean to suggest that the things at this end, the unwelcome staring and leering or the unwelcome sexualised jokes or banter that gets out of hand and becomes intimidating and offensive and sexualised, I don’t mean to suggest that those things are less important and less, you know, significant in terms of what we need to be talking about stamping out because they are unlawful acts. And what we know about sexual harassment is that, when those lower-level indicators are allowed to continue in the workplace, there tends to be an incremental process whereby, little by little, there is a normalisation of sexual harassment as part of cultural dynamics that can be allowed to continue. So, it’s really important that we say that, whilst unwelcome staring and leering is perhaps at this end of the spectrum as compared to this end, it doesn’t mean that that’s not just as important as the other stuff.

Now, the next element, after unwelcome, unwanted sexualised behaviour, is that this needs to take place in circumstances where a reasonable person – like you or I – would anticipate the possibility, the mere possibility that the recipient would feel offended, intimidated, or humiliated. So, that’s where the safety risk lies, that’s where the risk to basic human rights lies, that’s where the risk to someone’s dignity lies. It’s the possibility that the sexualised joke that’s about to be told, or it’s the possibility that the pat on the backside or the rubbing of someone’s neck at their computer, it’s the possibility that that might induce feelings of intimidation, humiliation, or offence, that matters. That’s where the safety risk is and that’s what the law says is outside of the realms of what’s OK.

Now, practically speaking, all of these legal elements boil down to some simple, basic human truths. And those truths are aligned with concepts of dignity and power. Each of us, in all of our daily exchanges in the world – whether or not they’re with our loved ones or with our – the person who serves us in the shops, or whether or not they’re with a colleague at work – we will all experience positive interactions, where power is being used in a way that uplifts and that makes us walk away feeling a little bit more, you know, perhaps joyful, perhaps more buoyant in the world, perhaps more valued, perhaps more seen. The opposite is always true of sexual harassment. And this goes back to what I said before about it being unwelcome, unwanted, and inducing feelings of offence, intimidation and humiliation. That is to say that there will always be a negative feeling that sexual harassment creates. There will always be a sense of, “Ooh, there’s something not quite right about that exchange that I’ve just been privy to or that’s just been directed at me.” There will always be that sense of discomfort, even if it’s a very subtle feeling that something is not quite right or that, “Tomorrow, I’m really not looking forward to seeing that person again, or I’m feeling unsafe, I’m feeling as though the policies that we say are important in the workplace aren’t necessarily applicable to me in my circumstances.” So, anything that leaves us feeling like our dignity is less intact or like we have been on the back foot, or that the sexualised joke has caused that level of humiliation or intimidation, is important to notice. Because even if it’s subtle, even if the behaviour is at this end of that scale, we know that there’s something amiss and that that’s a really strong signal that we’ve gotta do some work to intervene.

Mary Crooks: Yep, fantastic, Skye. So, following on from that, then, 2023, late in the year, looking across the Australian landscape, I certainly feel as though we’re being served up daily doses over the last several months of sexism and sexual harassment and misogyny, and I’m not going to ask you to comment on such reports this morning, as Senator Vann and his sixpack, but I did sort of roll my eyes of, “Here we go again.” But the scale – what kind of scale? Are we going forwards on the question of sexual harassment in workplaces? Are we taking steps sideways? Are we going backwards? What is the scale of the issue, in your mind?

Skye Charry: The issue rages on. The issue… I mean, we just have to look at the most recent Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Prevalence Survey. And that was released in November 2022, from memory. It confirmed that sexual harassment occurs in all industries, in all occupations, in all types of workplaces, and we’re talking about cattle stations to law firms to medical facilities, fast food shops, police stations, at all levels of seniority, and in a very wide range of contexts. So, we’re talking about everything from office desk work through to people who are driving trucks in fields, through to people who are working underground in mines or in the air in the sky, or out on the boats. It doesn’t matter. What we are seeing is that this continues to be a problem. There are reasons that we can point to that perhaps place some workplaces at a higher risk than others. So, occupations that are traditionally the domain of men, so we’re talking about the military or we’re talking about policing or mining, for example – that’s one sort of hot spot, and I think Luke will probably say some things about that moving forward. Hierarchical workplaces. So, I’ve just been doing some work with various law firms to talk around these issues, about sexual harassment, and we’re noticing things associated with intensity of billable hours and the competition for promotion and the competition to be seen to be agile and really able and competent in law firms and other related, you know? We’re also seeing client-patient facing roles, so people who are dealing with members of the public. Particularly, I remember interviewing a cohort of nurses in the course of one of the recent projects that I was leading, and I discovered that nurses, for example, are on a daily basis, they anticipate a level of humiliation on a sexual basis.

Mary Crooks: OK, so, Skye, coming back quickly – and we need to move on a little bit too – so when you talk about dignity and when you talk about power, and you have talked about hierarchical workplaces and workplaces where men are dominant in those workplaces, so in terms of the causality here, are we talking about the ongoing occurrence of sexual harassment, which is largely unfiltered, unchecked, masculine behaviour in workplaces?

Skye Charry: Yeah, Mary, I think that I would say – and I’m going to hand to Luke to actually respond to that too – but I would say that what I have found in the research that I’ve conducted over many years is that there tends to be three big drivers of sexual harassment, and I will say more about this later. But, you know, where sexual harassment is culturally problematic, it tends to be underestimated in terms of its impact by those who are perpetrating it – and there are lots of reasons for that relating to old stereotypes and generational, you know, traditions and all sorts of things – also tends to be underreported by those who are experiencing it. And that’s for situational reasons and contextual reasons. Lots of people have been taught that this is the way that things are done, you know? And there are lots of reasons why that’s difficult to smash through. And then the third reason is that it tends to be unopposed by those with a duty of care to lead. And so that’s what I would say, but I’ll hand to Luke because he would like to, I’m sure, comment on that too.

Mary Crooks: OK. Thanks, Skye. So, Luke, I will get you to address that first up before we move on to getting you to talk from your experience in your work on the ramifications and the harm done by sexual harassment. So, picking up on Skye’s points, underestimated, underreported, and unopposed. But even before that, are we talking about unchecked, unfiltered, largely male behaviour towards other men and especially women in workplaces? What is the causality equation here?

Luke Addinsall: Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Mary. And thanks for having me today. And thanks to Skye for your amazing answer already. I do think it is a normalised, sort of what I would call violence-supporting masculine culture, whereby we are still perpetuating social norms where men are encouraged almost to view their gender as superior, to see women as less-than, and to not take seriously the shifts that we’re advocating for, really globally, around gender equality and a reduction in violence-doing, power over models of understanding our work environments but more broadly our social contexts as well. So, overall, I think we’ve got a long way to go if we want to see significant change in the workplace, and I think it’s a broader issue of our sort of social norms around masculinity, how we perform masculinity, and what’s accepted and what’s not accepted. So, part of that, I think, is as well about how masculine culture is normalised within men. So, the first violence that men do isn’t towards somebody else, it’s to themselves. So, it’s an expectation as a result of patriarchal culture that men desensitise themselves so they are able to tolerate such behaviour in the workplace but also more broadly. And then, you know, an extension of that becomes the way that they’re treating others and that that’s culturally accepted. So, I do think we’ve got a really long way to go. I don’t think it’s an accident that we’re having trouble moving forward when those sort of cultural norms are still very much at play.

Mary Crooks: And, Luke, what are the ramifications? I mean, Skye has talked about feeling offended, humiliated, intimidated, a sense of something being amiss, of discomfort. But, again, in broad terms, from your experience, what are the range of harms that you have seen occurring as a result of sexual harassment in workplaces?

Luke Addinsall: Yeah, so we know that the impacts of sexual harassment are very broad. So, we’ve got – you know, we can talk about feelings of isolation, social isolation, or even dislocation. We know there’s often a loss of confidence, a withdrawal from social settings and relational settings but also workplace settings. We know that physical injury as a result of assaults occurs. And, you know, if we unpack the experience on somebody’s mental health – so, stress, depression, anxiety, PTSD as well, post-traumatic stress disorders can come from sexual harassment, particularly in the workplace, but also a single event. It can also have physical impacts, so cardiovascular disease has been associated with sexual harassment. Immune deficiencies, a bunch of negative impacts on the person. Impacting job or career sort of prospects. Suicidal ideation is also something that can occur from sexual harassment. But one of the things that I think is really important as well is to – if we’re looking at some of these impacts, understanding that they are a response to the sexual harassment. So, always, always understanding the impacts – that’s really important, I think – but also understanding that these are actually responses. You know, if I’m thinking about depression and anxiety, these are reasonable responses to what is an unreasonable act of discrimination or harassment against somebody. So, understanding the impacts is important and also pivoting to where the responsibility lies for the impacts that are being had is also a really important part, in a lot of my work, yeah.

Mary Crooks: So, Luke, in the work that you have been doing in the Behaviour Change arena, the programs, and so on, and a lot of that, I think, has probably been in NSW, is that correct?

Luke Addinsall: Yep, that’s correct.

Mary Crooks: But is there light at the end of the tunnel with switching the spotlight onto men’s behaviour and trying to support change and processing and recalibrating on views and attitudes and behaviours? Is this something to hang on to as a way to go? Because up until now, I think it’s been pretty underfunded nationally and by states, so is there a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of putting this emphasis on those who actually are doing the sexual harassment?

Luke Addinsall: I think the answer is yes. I think, ideally, the more we can pivot and put responsibility where it lies – which is with the user of violence or harassment – that ultimately is a positive pivot. I think we’ve got a long way to go in regards to that. I think still we are – as you said, funding-wise, we’re very limited. And, really, we’re meant to be having change, I think, or programs that sort of address perpetration of sexual harassment and violence are important, but we’re talking about addressing one individual at a time. Whereas these sort of more national or state campaigns that are actively asking people to pay attention as responders to where the responsibility lies for sexual harassment, as well as noticing language, understanding the issue in more depth, so that we are more adept to respond. And so that people who are experiencing sexual harassment have a faith that we are gonna respond in a way that’s really appropriate. I think it’s really important. And so messaging is getting there. I think we’re at the very beginning, really. In terms of where we can be going. But certainly there does need to be a lot more funding for interventions across the board for men. But I also think prevention. So, really putting things at the front and saying, “This is not acceptable anymore and it’s your responsibility to understand what’s happening and what’s legislated as sexual harassment, what’s legislated as domestic and sexual violence,” all of these areas, putting responsibility back. Certainly in my work, there is lots of people who I work with who don’t understand that what they’re doing – they understand that what they’re doing is not OK but they don’t understand the…

Mary Crooks: Yep. Luke, before I switch back to Skye with another line of questioning, I was noticing when I was looking at your work, the use of the phrase “men who use violence”, and I actually haven’t seen that commonly in the parlance around family violence and sexual harassment, and so on. So, I wonder if you could make a quick comment – I assume that that’s a very careful and strategic and deliberate use of language. “Men who use violence.” Can you just maybe elaborate on that?

Luke Addinsall: Yeah, thanks, Mary. I think it’s designed to do several things. One is it’s designed to name the behaviour as a behaviour, and also to see the person as more than just the behaviour, but also to be naming it. So, there’s a responsibility… There’s a positioning of it and naming it for what it is, and that is violence, and it’s also got a gendered element to it as well, obviously. But it’s being very specific about saying, “This person is using violence.” And there’s also a choice element to the terminology as well. So, it’s saying, “Here’s a man and this person is using violence, and ultimately they’re choosing to use violence.”

Mary Crooks: OK, thank you. Skye, back to you for a moment. So, you talked about the scale about whether it’s cattle stations or law firms or medical surgeries, and so on. Are some workplaces or workers more at risk than others?

Skye Charry: Yes, Mary. I’ll break that into two parts, perhaps, and comment on the fact that some workers are at higher risk, regardless of the nature of their occupation. We know, of course, that each person, every one of us, brings to the workplace a set of unique attributes and experiences and values and, you know, parts of our identity. Some things which are really obvious and other things which are not. And some of these attributes are protected by our human rights legislation. And some of these attributes even intersect or overlap and create what’s traditionally been regarded, you know, vulnerability, but it’s perhaps different to the next person’s. And the Australian Human Rights Commission explains of this that, as a result of all of the intersections that we might bring to our workplace, some people are at higher risk, and this includes women, younger people – now, younger women are a particularly important group for us to ponder and pause and consider in the context of this conversation because statistically they are increasingly at risk of sexual harassment, as perhaps the most significantly increasing group. So, that’s a really important factor. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people who are perhaps disabled in some way, workers from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, migrant workers, people who perhaps are working in jobs that are less secure, so on shorter-term contracts where things aren’t perhaps such high-stakes. So, all of these groups, the Australian Human Rights Commission have identified as being – for those of us in leadership positions in the workplace to be very conscious of, and to be all the more mindful of in terms of designing our policies and our procedures, and thinking about what it means to create safety and to create dignity for everyone equally in the workplace.

So, that’s the first part of the question. And the second part of the question, I think, Mary, goes back to that comment that I made a moment ago about the fact that, for some workplace environments where culture has been allowed to continue unchecked – and by that, where a particularly, I guess, toxic type of culture has been allowed to simmer away – it becomes a little bit like the frog in the boiling pot, you know, in the sense that we can be operating in a way that, you know, assumes almost within us, somehow we almost assume that the standard of behaviour around us is as it is. It is, you know, it is the way that things are done out here, or it is the way that this particular workplace rolls, you know? That’s a very dangerous place for workers to be because what that means is that, little by little, the bizarre becomes normal. Let’s face it, you know? The bizarreness of behaviour becomes normal. And so that’s why – and really springing from what Luke said before – I think it’s important for us to remember that, in a workplace environment, all of us have a role to play in terms of responding to sexual harassment when it happens. You know, the nature of the stuck culture can be such that, you know, people who are operating in this way do sometimes tend to think that they’ve come into… You know, younger men, for example, come in and they’re shown that this is the way that we speak about women, this is the way that we speak to women, this is the way that things have always been, “If you don’t like it, you can fit in or eff off,” you know? That sort of a message that’s seeped in old ways of understanding the role of men and women, seeped-in gender inequity. That’s one of the key drivers, as Luke’s explained to us. It’s a particularly complex issue because part of this becomes about performing this type of masculinity for mates, you know, and there is this sense that when you’ve got very close relationships in particular workplaces, particularly, you know, the more rural you go, the more you tend to be mates with the people, you know, close mates working alongside one another.

Banter is a really good example of where things can actually slip out of hand very quickly in the context of sexual harassment. Because people know each other, people enjoy, you know, being stimulated by joviality, by larrikinism, by all of the things, and people aren’t pausing necessarily to consider the impact on those who have also a very important and valuable and precious role to play in the workplace environment, and who perhaps would prefer not to be privy to the commentary on what Dave did on Saturday night. So, there are some really interesting and important aspects there. Just very briefly, I would also say that, you know, when sexual harassment is normalised in this way, that notion of not wanting to create a mountain out of a molehill is becoming bigger. Because I noticed that the most recent Sexual Harassment Prevalence Survey that the Human Rights Commission put out shows that only 18% of Australians would feel comfortable reporting at higher level about sexual harassment. It used to be 30-something per cent in the 5-year survey prior to that. So, we have actually slipped in terms of the confidence to report. And that worries me enormously, particularly given that we’re in a new dawn in terms of positive duty. So, there’s that. And finally, Mary, the last thing is that where this duty of care is being underestimated by leaders, and where sexual harassment is going unopposed, it tends to be for reasons that I’ve heard, like, you know, we’ve got a list of things as long as my arm that we need to achieve before sunrise and sunset. And dealing with “hurt feelings” is not one of them, so we need to all just get on with it and suck it up, and, you know, move forward.

Mary Crooks: Yeah. Skye, I think – I love that concept of a “stuck” culture. You know, which is just sort of – is not in gear, even. It’s just sort of idling. I love that idea, and the expectation of being conformative within that. I noticed when I was cruising over the Insight Exchange website, which I will talk about towards the end, but there’s a line in that website that really caught my eye, and I want to read it out before I move on with you and Luke to a more action-oriented part of the discussion. It says, “What we understand about sexual harassment informs what we think, what we notice, what we ask about, and what we do and don’t do.” I thought, “That’s a really great starting point.” What we understand about sexual harassment – so, if we don’t understand a lot about it and we’re not very informed about it, and that we sort of notice but then we turn a blind eye and we don’t do anything much about it, can, in fact, be flipped if you have a strong understanding of sexual harassment, you’re well-informed, you notice more, you ask the right questions, you go to the right resources, you get the right expertise in, and then you’re in a better position to do rather than not to do. So, I think that’s a really good, general intro to – maybe starting with you, Luke – what are the kinds of things an employer can start to do? That great notion of a stuck workplace, how do you unstick that kind of workplace? How does it become unstuck, that kind of workplace? What can a leader in a workplace start to really come to terms with this?

Luke Addinsall: Yeah, thanks, Mary. It is a great analogy, isn’t it, because ideally we can get unstuck, and it is a possibility. And to your point, based on what you were reading from the Insight Exchange website, I think a lot of it is about sort of feelings as though we can be unstuck, feeling resourced, feeling as though we better understand issues, we better understand how language plays a significant part, to Skye’s points before about banter, you know? If we understand that sexual harassment is often introduced or plays out as banter or just jokes in the workplace, for example, then we can be a little bit more alert and on the lookout for that. And if we have a more nuanced understanding of what’s going on and how it plays out, then we might also be better equipped to respond and have a sense of how do we respond. And so in terms of responding more effectively in the workplace, I think a lot of it is about being better-informed, understanding the issue, feeling as though we’re on board. So, it’s quite proactive. So, it’s like, “What are we doing about sexual harassment?” So, starting to understand as a team, particularly as leaders, “What is it that we’re proactively doing in this space to be able to address this?” Because ultimately, we do have a duty of care, and we know that we’ve got a positive duty now. So, it puts the responsibility on managers to consistently ensure that they’re monitoring and responding proactively to sexual harassment. So, how do we do that? How do we get on the front foot, for feeling equipped to do it?

The other thing that’s really important as well is that we don’t necessarily promote it as within the workplace to say we can respond to this but not have the background set-up so that we do effectively respond to it. Because ultimately I think people who experiencing sexual harassment, they’re often constantly monitoring how it’s perceived in the workplace. How are people responding? How was that comment responded to by a leader or a manager? And if I have been a victim of it in the workplace, if I see them fobbing it off or saying that it’s just banter, then that tells me something about how the workplace might respond to my serious concerns around sexual harassment. So, as a workplace, part of it is about saying, you know, “We want to take this seriously,” but another part is being saying, “How are we taking this seriously in how do we follow that seriously? How do we follow the lead of the people who are experiencing it to address it really sensitively, make sure that it is victim-centred in terms of our responses, to make sure that leadership is really on board and proactive.” And make sure, as responders and as workplaces, we aren’t asking people to guess whether we’re on to this or not. So, to your point earlier, Mary, about how do we really take action and put people are doing sexual harassment in the workplace at the forefront and at the centre of our responses? It’s about, I think, as workplaces, saying, “We are attuned to this issue and we are interested in pivoting to the people who are using this behaviour and doing this behaviour. We’re not interested in, you know, just putting it under the carpet or fobbing it off as banter.”

Mary Crooks: So, Luke, is it fair to say in this day and age that one of the hallmarks of a really good leader in an organisation, in a workplace, is going to be someone who is proactive and not waiting for this to become a problem? So, as Skye has said, if people have been losing confidence about reporting harassment, then it almost says to me that it’s an even greater call to action for people in management and leadership positions, that they need to become even more proactive, if the underreporting and people are losing confidence. So, are you prepared to say that one of the hallmarks of a really good leader is to not wait for this to boil over but to actually go on the front foot?

Luke Addinsall: Absolutely. Yeah. I think it’s a really important step in the right direction. And to sort of demystify that, I think, because it’s just jokes, or it’s just banter, it is a very common sort of element that I’m familiar with, anyway, in terms of certainly users of violence, their excuse-making, what they’re minimising of what’s been going on. And so to be really clear as leaders to say, “We’re not being oversensitive. It’s not that we can’t take a joke. It’s that that’s not a joke. I’m really open to humour but that’s not a joke.” And so sort of getting really clear and assertive about it, saying, “We’re not oversensitive. We’re about equality and we’re about respect in the workplace,” is an important one. And I think if we can do that really proactively, then it sends a really good message to people. And also again to be talking about definitions and to be really making sure that people are really clear, saying, “That joke is sexual harassment. It’s the same as domestic and family violence, coercive control becoming legislated is a similar thing.” Saying, “No, that’s not just dot, dot, dot. It falls within the definition of it’s not OK.” So, being realistic about it. But also sort of, you know, it doesn’t have to be, sort of, punitive or finger-waving in terms of the way that we sort of communicate a lot of this. So, getting that balance right is an important part of it as well.

Mary Crooks: Yeah. And I think that the opening comments by you, Skye, around unwelcome, unwanted, sexualised behaviour, around dignity and power and the worth of another human being – that surely is the antidote to be played out when one is being accused of being woke on this matter, of being able to go back to basic principles around the essence of humanity and humanity one to the other, yeah?

Skye Charry: That’s right, Mary. And I was thinking as Luke was talking too that there are some workplaces that naturally speak the language of safety as a sort of, almost a “in your sleep” type language. Whereas the language of human rights is feeling somewhat different. It feels like it’s new. And so the notion of a sex discrimination conversation or the notion of a sexual harassment conversation, within that framework, seems like, “Oh, this is something that’s been thrust upon us as part of the…” Whereas the safety conversation, which is actually a different road that gets us to Rome – all roads are leading there. Because whether or not you frame this as a safety issue or as an issue of human rights, both ways are fine, so long as we’re actually noticing the risk and responding to the risk. Preventing…

Mary Crooks: OK. We need to make some time real soon for some questions to you both from our online community. But can I ask you both really briefly before we go into Q&A, what you think are the most important first steps – for you, Skye, to start with – what’s the most important first step, say, a person in the workplace is experiencing sexual harassment, for that person to take the next step? This is a brief response. And then, Luke, for you, the first steps that an employing organisation can take. And then we’ll take Q&A. So, Skye, if someone is concerned and they feel as though they’re in a situation of being sexually harassed, what’s the first step, do you think?

Skye Charry: Well, the first step, it’s actually interesting, Mary. I would like to reverse the questions, because the first step is actually that they are safe and going to be looked after in the context of using their voice in a confidential, competent way. Now, that actually relies on other key players, which is what I was saying before about everyone having a role to play. So, the first thing is that a person who is sexually harassed needs to understand that we are now, as of next week, operating under new legislation nationally such that they are even more protected than ever in the context of being deserving of a safe, healthy working environment. Their employer MUST take steps – all of us who are listening who are employers and senior leaders must take proportionate and reasonable steps under the new law to actively prevent and respond to sexual harassment. Now, what that means is that a person who experiences it should feel like the law is on their side, in the sense that their employer must be doing this. What does it look like? Well, perhaps if we have time, Mary, I can break that down in a moment. But, first, Luke, would you like to add anything before we…?

Mary Crooks: Skye, we might actually break it down in the Q&A, I think.

Skye Charry: OK, yep.

Mary Crooks: Yeah. Luke, a quick response from you?

Luke Addinsall: I think I second what Skye is saying, really, just in terms of, as employers, how are we demonstrating? It’s about proactive demonstration. What are we doing so that we are confident that if somebody has concerns or if they want to raise something, that we’re really well-equipped to be able to address that in a way that’s leader-driven, consented, practical, adaptable, supportive, and really, ultimately, focused on getting a satisfactory outcome for the person who’s…

Mary Crooks: Thank you. So, Ally, we’ve got some questions coming through. Can you field those our way? And we’ve got 15 minutes left for our webinar.

Ally Oliver-Perham: No worries. I can talk fast! There’s a couple of questions that we probably can kind of bring together. So, we’ve got one from Rachael, asking, when do you determine when to go to a supervisor? Like, at what point is it deemed serious enough that it could be taken into issue? And that’s probably coupled with another one about, what’s the best way to respond and call it out at the moment? In the moment when it’s happening?

Mary Crooks: Let’s start with you, Skye, I think.

Skye Charry: I think that my first response is that the moment that you’re feeling as though you are in receipt of unwelcome, unwanted behaviour that’s making you feel like you’re off-balance, that you’re off-centre, that’s the signal that it’s time to have perhaps a conversation. And the conversation doesn’t necessarily need to jump to the most formal level at first instance. In fact, when I have been designing workplace policy for some of the larger organisations lately, I’ve been making sure that we all talk about the fact that, you know, we would rather create a culture where on-the-ground conversations between people that are meaningful and that situate values and needs, that there is a space for that. So, what I’m saying is, for example, if somebody feels confident and able, because the culture supports them, to say, “Look, Tony, perhaps it wasn’t your intention to humiliate me earlier today when we were in the tearoom and you made a comment about cattle teats resembling a picture in a magazine, and I was there stirring my tea. Tony, I know it wasn’t your intention necessarily for that conversation to be for me, and I know it wasn’t your intention necessarily, intention to humiliate me, but I wanted to tell you because I value our relationship that I did feel humiliated. I don’t want that to be a problem for us in the workplace, so I wanted to have a chat with you now.” The moment we can start to normalise this informal grassroots stuff as the first possibility, I think, is a good moment for workplaces and for culture and for people more generally. Because let’s face it, interpersonal relationships are precious and we want to preserve them.

So, where that’s possible, great. But then where it’s difficult, that’s where you lean into the people who are actually being paid to look after you and to make sure that you are safe and that your dignity is intact and that you’re able to trust other people in the workplace without question or hesitation, and that you don’t drive home thinking, “Is it just me? Did I do something? Am I overreacting? Is this just the way that it is?” So, that’s when to have that conversation – the moment, the moment that you’re starting to… And that can be informal too. So, you can go along to a supervisor and say, “Look, do you have a moment? I’d really love to talk to you, Skye, about something that I’m experiencing. I don’t wish for this to be regarded as a formal complaint for a formal investigative purpose but I do want to perhaps workshop with you what’s happening and give you an insight, and perhaps you could just have a closer eye to the ground or an ear to the ground, and perhaps if necessary I’ll follow up and we will see if we need to make this more formal.”

The other possibility is that it is a formal investigation that’s required at first instance because it’s really serious and someone is suffering in a way that is completely unacceptable. And there are no other safe mechanisms for communication. So, what then happens is that the supervisor needs to be equipped and ready to listen, to be empathetic, to be conscious of the dignity of the complainant whilst balancing that also with principles of natural justice and being, you know, sure to hold that tension beautifully. And also, you know, these principles of timeliness and communication along the way, and talking to the parties and giving people responsive time. All of these things then kick into gear as well. So, there’s not a one-size-fits-all response, but it is very important that we start to become comfortable with a suite of possibilities.

Mary Crooks: Yep, cool. Ally.

Ally Oliver-Perham: The next one is – I’ll bring another couple of questions together because they’re kind of similar. This is from Isabel and another anonymous person. Where do you go if the senior team that you would normally take your complaint to are part of the problem and are potentially hostile to such complaints?

Skye Charry: Luke, would you like me to respond to that? Yep? My instinct would be that you go straight to the Australian Human Rights Commission and make a confidential complaint, which then becomes something that is navigated by the Human Rights Commission’s conciliators. They will communicate with you about the facts. They will contact you and make a phone call perhaps about, you know, what it is that you’re concerned about. They’ll gather more facts. Then they’ll explain to you what they’re going to do next. They will need to reach out, most likely, to the other side and to talk to them about the nature of the complaint. And, ultimately, we know that 73% of conciliations at the Human Rights Commission are successfully worked out at that level. We also know that there are some statistics on the other side of that, that means that, you know, it’s best that things can be worked out at that level because only 2% or 3% actually then head off to the Federal Court, which is the next port of call. And of those matters, only, I think, 1% actually ever have a judicial outcome because there are so many costs and resources, and so forth, associated with that level of judicial outcome. So, we don’t see a lot of sexual harassment matters hit the court. Between 2015 and 2020 there were 10 at federal level, 10 sexual harassment matters over that 5-year period, for example.

Mary Crooks: Yeah. Surely, the goal in some respects – I mean, having the court processes are crucial, but the goal is to build positive cultures in workplaces that squeeze out the opportunities for sexual harassment. Luke, I wanted to follow up from that question Ally raised and just throw it back to you in terms of, you know, the kind of pushback, the kind of resistance that you can expect to get from someone who’s caught in the warp and who thinks that this is frivolous or whose first defence is to attack? So, where do workplaces go when the perpetrators, for example – and in this instance, perhaps men who are using violence and abuse and harassment in their workplaces – when they just push back so effectively so that the thing becomes squashed and stymied again?

Luke Addinsall: Yeah. Ideally, we’re engaging with users of violence in ways that are going to stop them from doing further harm and damage. So, you know, if we can engage them in a way that sees them open to change or understanding the issues, then I think that’s fantastic. But as you say, there is a lot of resistance. There’s gonna be backlash, I think, with all of the sort of legislation that’s been coming in over the years. And I think we do need to be sensitive to that, or – sorry, not sensitive to it, but understanding that that’s gonna happen. So, how do we get on the front foot and say, “Hey, fellas, did you know that this is the new legislation?” And if we experience sort of a level of outrage about that, “This is ridiculous,” well, firstly, this is legislation, so it’s not changing, whether you think it’s ridiculous or not. And, secondly, why is it ridiculous? Are we saying people experiencing unwelcome advances…? Getting on the front foot and almost creating a conversation so we can challenge the resistance in itself. And also to be putting forward again in a friendly, warm, but also assertive way, to say, “This is legislation.” And I use the term “arguing with reality” sometimes for people who I work with. And saying, “You can argue with reality but this is the reality. And it’s designed to keep people safe.” So, how do we… “So, it’s your responsibility, knowing that that is the legislation, it’s your responsibility to do some changing rather than to suggest the legislation needs changing or that people are getting oversensitive. Because it’s not a woke issue, it’s a human rights issue.”

Mary Crooks: I like the fact that you just emphasised it’s a legislative reality. But you did hint at the other conversations that should be being had in workplaces, not simply the ones that Skye was talking about, but to those who are pushing back, to be prepared to have the honest conversations and push back to those who would push back, in terms of getting them to try and identify what it is that’s bugging them about this, and so on, getting close to the cause. Ally, do we have some more questions there?

Ally Oliver-Perham: We’ve actually got more than we’ve got time to answer. Here’s a good one from Barb: What can a manager do when a confidential complaint is made by someone impacted who refuses to escalate the matter, despite it being quite significant behaviour?

Skye Charry: In the event that it’s a criminal matter, they have no choice but to proceed to investigate the matter. Because there is a very high threshold that must be met in terms of that duty of care. In terms of being aware, having been made aware of behaviour on the ground that is unlawful and unhealthy and impacting people’s wellbeing, to some extent, even in the context of an informal complaint, the duty is to respond in appropriate ways. Now, it might just be that that means having, you know, as I said before, an increased presence, an increased eye to… For example, in a field context, it might be that a senior manager who is located, you know, usually 700km away, might actually need to make the decision to put some resources towards a visit to site for a set period of time to absorb some of the culture and see it for themselves. Because as we said before, it’s very important to actually have a good handle, a good grip on the culture, particularly if you’re in a leadership role – and that is, in fact, what the new legislative requirements say that we must do.

And I might just say that the implications for not taking reasonable and proportionate steps, whatever they might be, are significant. We’re talking 6-figure sums, plus, in terms of damages. So, people have to have a look at what is reasonable in this circumstance. Hostile working environments will attract a higher degree of liability, and therefore a higher degree of, you know, that what’s reasonable than perhaps workplaces that are small and perhaps are not traditionally hostile. What does “hostile” mean? It means the workplaces where things like, you know, pornography have been allowed to be pinned up next to rain calendars, and where people have been allowed to speak about women or other people in a particular way, not necessarily always women either. Where people have been allowed to, you know, disrespect one another in various ways, sexualised or not. You know, some of these indicators over time mean that what’s reasonable and proportionate under the law that comes into place next week really has to be assessed by every single person who is in a supervisory role. And practical steps towards people’s safety is what needs to be taken.

Mary Crooks: Thanks, Skye. And what that’s suggesting is one of the first actions of a halfway decent manager and supervisor and leader is to get right across that legislation, that new legislation, and see it as part of their commitment to breaking cycles.

Skye Charry: Mmm.

Mary Crooks: Ally, have we got time for one more question before we wrap up?

Ally Oliver-Perham: We do. This is from Bryony: How can workplace policies change to get rid of gendered stereotypes and support victim/survivors? So maybe not just sexual harassment policies.

Mary Crooks: We might start with you, Luke, I think.

Luke Addinsall: I mean, I think probably from a policy and procedures level, Skye might be better qualified. But I guess, for me, it’s about assertively changing the culture and really, you know, I think some people, to your point earlier, Mary, about, you know, having difficulty addressing or engaging with perpetrators, I think one of the ways that we can do this is almost sort of deliberately, you know, for want of a better phrase, poke the bear. Say, “This is what’s happened.” Get on the front foot so that if there’s any resistance, it’s coming to leadership, it’s not coming to the people who are in isolated environments, particularly as some of Skye’s research in regional and rural places. But to get clear and say, “This is what’s happened. Does anyone have a problem with it? If you do, come and speak with me.” That’s a bit outside of policy and procedure. But perhaps, Skye, in the interests of time limitations, would you like to talk a bit more to it?

Skye Charry: I think what you’ve said is perfect. At bare bones, at basic level, what every single leader needs to do – and this is the bare minimum standard – would be to make sure there’s meaningful policy that actually responds to the reality of the workplace. So, things about the practicalities, even, of people being able to reach particular supervisors and leaders. The practicalities of being able to pick up the phone or write and email or not, and build into the policy the things that are possible. Support mechanisms are super important, and being responsive in the policy to, at first instance, listening to the needs of the complainant, first and foremost, and then designing – according to natural justice principles still, and this is that tension I spoke about before – allows a policy for both, the natural justice but also for real empathy in leadership. Really important, just finally, that alongside the policy there is meaningful conversations being had in workplaces about the content of the policy.

Meaningful conversations sometimes means staff meetings, sometimes means emails, sometimes means in shearing sheds a sign up as something to remind people, just as they would occupational health and safety stuff about lifting sheep. It’s really responsive stuff. Training at the level of heads – i.e., policy, this is what we’re talking about, this is sexual harassment, this is not sexual harassment – and hearts – this is the “why”. This is the dignity piece. This is the reality of the impact that Luke spoke about before. And then demonstrations of leadership at every turn. You know, being adaptive and thinking creatively and thinking about the person, first and foremost.

Mary Crooks: Yep. Skye, I think that’s a great wrap-up, actually. And I think what the discussion has shown, importantly, two things. One is that we shouldn’t be putting the burden all the time on the person who is being sexually harassed. That we should be actually very, very mindful of that and providing all the supports possible, in and outside of the workplace. But it seems to me, from what you’re saying, the burden, in fact, to be shouldered in this instance is on the workplaces themselves, on the leaders, on the managers, on the supervisors. And I think what Luke has shown us too is that, you know, if you want to change a workplace culture, it’s not all the time that women in workplaces have to be doing the workplace cultural change, that it’s something around the masculine culture that we’ve inherited over generations, that there’s a lot of work to be done around contesting and challenging what has been a dominant culture. And I can tell from both of you, in your lines of work, that you are used to seeing success here, although perhaps not as widespread as you’d like, so you’re not suggesting for a minute that nothing can be done here. I do need to wrap up. We’re over time. So, if people can just bear with me.

Closing off by thanking Skye Charry, Dr Skye Charry, and Luke Addinsall. A great team to have on our panel this morning. Thank you very, very much for giving us the time. To people who have joined online, it’s terrific to have people come aboard midmorning and to give us your time, and we hope that it’s been really meaningful for you. And thank you, also, to our captioner. And thanks to Ally, our staffer, who never wants me to mention her, but we wouldn’t have been able to produce this in the seamless way today without her role, and in briefing you as well.

I think the most important call to action, I mean, we’re not, at the Women’s Trust, you know, we don’t promote product for the sake of it. But both Ally and I have been all over the website, the Insight Exchange website that you are both strongly connected with. And I think it is genuinely housing a lot of great stuff, that website. So, if one of the things that can come out of today’s webinar is that everybody who’s participated now takes a look at Insight Exchange website, and to pick and choose what they want for their own self-knowledge and their own schooling up as managers and supervisors and individuals.

So, thank you, again, everyone. If anyone does need support from this webinar, as I mentioned at the outset, Skye has offered her support. So, I think the best bet, Ally, might be if you put Skye’s email address up in the chat for people. And if that’s OK, thank you again, Luke and Skye, and let’s hope that this webinar coming a week out from the legislative change generates its own ripple effects. Thank you very much and take care, everyone.

Skye Charry: Thank you, Mary. Thank you, everyone.

Luke Addinsall: Thank you, Mary.


More about Insight Exchange:

Insight Exchange centres on the expertise of people with lived experience of domestic and family violence and gives voices to these experiences. Designed to inform, Insight Exchange works to strengthen social, service and systemic responses to domestic and family violence. Head to the Insight Exchange website for more information. 


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