Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner shares approaches to tackling workplace sexual harassment

29 June 2020

Collecting and reporting gender equity data is a crucial component for higher education and research sector organisations working to tackle workplace sexual harassment, according to Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins.

Commissioner Jenkins made the comments during a recent webinar ‘Transforming workplaces to be free from sexual harassment‘.

The webinar for SAGE members took place on 26 May and was facilitated by Professor Kay Latham, the first Victorian Dean STEMM Diversity and Inclusion, of RMIT University.

In the webinar, Commissioner Jenkins outlined how SAGE members can use the findings from the Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (2020) produced by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Respect@Work report

Commissioner Jenkins discussed the importance of data and research on the nature of workplace sexual harassment and its impacts on individuals and businesses. She focused on a range of recommendations most relevant to the Higher Education and Research sector, including:

  • Primary prevention
  • Strategies for better workplace prevention and response
  • Better support, advice and advocacy

SAGE was cited in Respect@Work as an effective model for encouraging positive organisational change – eliminating sexual harassment is directly relevant to a number of the Athena SWAN Charter principles. Commissioner Jenkins described the vital importance of SAGE member organisations collecting and reporting data related to gender equity.

“One of the primary drivers of sexual harassment is gender inequality,” said Commissioner Jenkins. “Reporting on gender equality, particularly at leadership levels, is a critical part of preventing sexual harassment. SAGE takes a proactive and positive approach.”

Commissioner Jenkins also shared insights from the 2017 Change the course report into sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities. The report contained sobering statistics about sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities. From a survey of 30,000 students at 39 Australian universities in 2016, one in five (21 per cent) students was sexually harassed in a university setting in the previous year.

Infographics from Change the Course report, 2017.

Commissioner Jenkins highlighted the following recommendations from the report:

  • Leadership and governance: ensuring leaders engage with students
  • Primary prevention: including targeted educational campaigns to address gender inequality
  • Ensuring students have access to specialist support
  • Monitoring responses: to build on evidence-based information and training for staff and students

Commissioner Jenkins emphasised the role that universities have to play in the primary prevention of sexual harassment, describing the unique position of universities in directly influencing gender equity attitudes in young people during their critical transition from school to higher education. “Advancing gender equality more broadly will be a critical factor in addressing sexual harassment,” she added.

The Commissioner acknowledged the breadth of work being carried out by Australian universities to implement the report’s recommendations, describing promising improvements in the establishment of more student support services and anonymous reporting lines for sexual harassment and assault. The Australian university responses to the Change the Course report can be viewed with the 18 month milestone responses and are being audited by the Human Rights Commission and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Board.

Commissioner Jenkins also highlighted the importance of universities working with industry. “It has been my experience working directly with universities that industry initiatives are critical if we want to change sexual harassment,” she said.

Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate JenkinsAustralian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins

Commissioner Jenkins and Professor Latham discussed the need STEM-specific responses to prevent workplace harassment. “The STEM sector is so troubled in terms of gender equity,” said Professor Latham, who has been a driving force behind RMIT’s SAGE Athena SWAN journey.

Professor Latham drew attention to focus areas such as addressing power imbalances between supervisors and higher degree research students, as well as job insecurity in the female STEM workforce, who are disproportionately represented in junior and casual academic roles. This key issue has come to the foreground in the recently published research report on The impact of COVID-19 on women in the STEM workforce, available through the Rapid Research Information Forum.

Webinar participants discussed preventing sexual harassment in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. A growing number of SAGE members and higher education sector partners have signed a statement pledging their commitment to preserve gender equity as a higher education priority during the crisis and recovery period of COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sexual harassment is a problem that continues to need urgent attention,” said Commissioner Jenkins. “While the government’s response to the Respect@Work recommendations may be delayed due to COVID-19, tertiary education institutions and workplaces have the information they need to create more productive and respective workplaces.”

“The breadth and variety of our recommendations reflect that sexual harassment is a complex issue,” said Commissioner Jenkins. “But the core of our message is simple: sexual harassment is not inevitable and it is preventable.”

The SAGE webinar ‘Transforming workplaces to be free from sexual harassment’ is available to watch online.