At least half of all women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or violence. That’s 1 in 2 that has been sexually harassed, 1 in 3 that has been physically abused and 1 in 5 that has been sexually abused. Let that sink in. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue with the goal of dismantling gendered violence in Australia.
It happened several years ago, but Sarah* can still clearly recall the day she felt she had no choice but to look for help outside her workplace. The Darwin woman, who worked in the transport industry at the time, had patiently waited a whole year for her employer to address a complaint she had made about a male manager sexually harassing her at work. But nothing was done, forcing her to seek much-needed support elsewhere.
It wasn't until she stumbled across the Northern Territory Working Women's Centre (NTWWC) – a free frontline service helping women facing work-related issues – that she got the help she needed.
"I reported everything to HR and my manager and nothing was resolved," the now 36-year-old told Refinery29 Australia. She shared that a male manager had physically harassed her. He had flown into the Darwin office from another branch for a short period of time.
After making the complaint, Sarah said she "brought it up quite a few times" with management and HR and they assured her the issue was being addressed.
"They were like, 'It's in the process, it's in the process'," she recalled. "After about six months of that, nothing was resolved and I brought it up again with my new manager. Again, nothing was done."
Sarah said another colleague had told her the same manager had sexually harassed her as well and she too had gone to HR with a similar complaint. Not only did management's lack of action make the situation "even more frustrating", but Sarah felt emotionally triggered every time she encountered the alleged perpetrator.
"Whenever I received an email, like even if it was a group email from him, I'd get a real sick feeling in my stomach," she said. "Just even seeing his name in emails, it just made me angry that he could contact me."
A few months later, she confided in another manager, who encouraged her to seek external legal advice as internal progress hadn't been made. But where to start?
"Even HR couldn't give me any external sources or external help at all. So it was really hard because you're Googling and you have no idea at all about where to even begin," said Sarah. "I just Googled, 'Where to get help' and the Northern Territory Working Women's Centre came up."
The NTWWC is a frontline service providing women with free support and advice on work-related matters including underpayment, wage theft, parental leave, bullying and workplace sexual harassment and assault. In the NT, there are two branches in Darwin and Alice Springs, while working women's centres also exist in South Australia and Queensland.
"I contacted them and they sent me a load of information on different avenues I could take and what the laws were," said Sarah. "They were there to support me pretty much every step of the way. So they were really, really helpful."
She said the NTWWC sent her a "step-by-step" email showing her choices for what course of action she could take, as well as a list of available counselling services. The centre also followed up with a phone call.
"The call was to make sure that everything was understood, if I had any questions, what my thoughts were and what my feelings were," said Sarah. "They really make you feel heard and understood."
Sarah ultimately didn't take formal external action against her employer and instead quit her role and moved overseas. But having the support of the NTWWC and being told what options were available to her if she chose to proceed brought her the solace she needed.
Nicki Petrou, the director of the NTWWC, said the organisation is "an advocacy service and a support service" and some staff have a legal or social work background.
“We talk through their [clients’] options and that might be where they might be able to put in a complaint to the employer or they might be able to put in a sexual harassment complaint to the Anti-Discrimination Commission or the Human Rights Commission about what's been happening at work," she explained.
While the centre has serviced Sarah and thousands of other women, funding cuts puts its future in jeopardy. The organisation's core federal funding ceased in December 2020, and while the NT government gives the centre $200,000 a year, another $700,000 annually is needed to keep it open. If the centre doesn't get federal funding soon, Petrou fears being forced to make staff cuts, reduce operating hours from five to three days a week in September, and potentially closing doors in November.
Sarah said it would be a massive shame if the NTWWC had to shut down. "It will be devastating for heaps for people if that happens," she said. "Not just for current or past clients, but for future people as well. Future women who need help."
In the 12 months to 30 June 2021, the NTWWC saw a 29% increase in the number of clients serviced through casework, and recorded seven times the number of sexual harassment matters.
Sarah said she wanted to speak up because not many people realise the valuable and life-changing work done by the working women's centres unless they've been on the receiving end of their services.
"That's why it would be such a shame if this WWC didn't get any funding, because it happens so much so often and women do need the help and support and do need to be heard."
*NB: Name has been changed for anonymity.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service