Fired Up

Why Don’t More Women Report Workplace Sexual Harassment?

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.
Two in five women have been sexually harassed in the workplace and one in six women over the age of 15 have experienced sexual assault. In an attempt to create change, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins released the Respect@Work Report which details the prevalence of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. 
The report found that women experience higher rates of sexual harassment at work, as well as workers that are under 30, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds, have a disability, or are in insecure working arrangements.
Heartbreakingly, for one in three of these victims, the harassment continues for over two years and according to the report, the overwhelming majority of preparators are men. 
Yet despite the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment, fewer than 17 per cent of victims make a formal report or complaint. 
Image by Poppy Thorpe
In discussions about sexual assault and harassment we often hear “Why don’t victims report it?” or “Why did they take so long to report?” 
But speculating on why victims don’t report incidents places the onus on the victim. Usually, however well-meaning, the question doesn’t take into consideration the very valid reasons why someone might not be able to or felt as though they couldn’t. Further, questioning the length of time it can take to report the incident isn’t sympathetic to the trauma associated with reporting or even coming to terms with the incident. 
To understand why women might not report sexual assault and harassment, I spoke to the director of the Women’s and Children’s Health Network’s Women’s Safety Division, South Australia’s leading government provider of health services to women and children, Katrina Dee. 
“For some people, it is the fear of not being believed,” Dee told Refinery29 Australia. “For some it might be that they had prior contact with the police and are concerned they won’t be supported, for others, it might be that the person is known to them and still a person in position of power in their life, and if it’s their employer or boss, [reporting] might directly influence their career.
“Employers often come from a place of ‘there are two sides to every story’ and ‘we need to hear the other version of events’. They don’t want to draw a line in the sand,” Dee says. “[These incidents] often occur without any witnesses, and it can come down to one person’s word against another.”
This places victims in a vulnerable position that can call their integrity into question. 

Of those that reported a sexual harassment incident, 43% experienced negative consequences as a result.

The National Survey described that of those that reported a sexual harassment incident to their workplace, 43 per cent experienced negative consequences as a result. Out of that percentage, 19 per cent were labelled a ‘trouble-maker’, 18 per cent were ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues and 17 per cent resigned. The fear of experiencing these negative consequences for merely reporting sexual assault or harassment is enough to deter anyone.
I spoke to two women, Sophie* and Hannah* about their experiences. 
Sophie was relieving a fellow colleague’s class when one of the students made a sexual comment towards her. “[He] tried to talk about his genitalia size as background about himself,” Sophie says. “He made inappropriate advances, including asking me out.”
Sophie works at an Australian tertiary education institution and this wasn’t the only time she has been made to feel uncomfortable there. “I have regularly had unwanted sexual advances made towards me by people in my workplace,” Sophie says. “Anywhere from comments about what I’m wearing, people asking me out in exchange for them to help me with my work and comments from students, particularly during student feedback sessions, which are anonymous.” 
Sophie’s work was often her escape from the sexual injustice she faced in her private life. “When [sexual harassment] started to filter into my work life, it was super scary,” Sophie says. 
When asked whether she reported the incidents, she said she had the first time, but never again after that. 
“After the [first] process, I was deterred from doing it again,” Sophie says, “I had also been told it was quite normal for older men in my profession to pursue younger, and less senior, females. 
“I am a young, bisexual woman,” Sophie explains. “I am aware that reporting people who are above you in the career food chain can impact your career progression.” And Sophie didn’t want her progression to slow down. 
Sophie had reported the incident with the student, and they were spoken to, but her workplace never spoke to her. “There was no direct contact, no follow-ups, no extension of support,” Sophie says. The student who harassed Sophie was even enrolled in another one of her classes. 

For 1 in 5 cases, there are no consequences for the perpetrator as a result of the complaint being made against them.

A few years later, her workplace pledged to create a better culture in relation to sexual harassment. Sophie says that they sent her an email asking what happened many years prior but she says, “At that point, so much time had passed there wasn’t much I could do. I also didn’t want to harm my employability by complaining.” 
For one in five cases, there are no consequences for the perpetrator as a result of the complaint being made against them. Out of those perpetrators who did receive consequences, 30 per cent were formally warned, 27 per cent were informally spoken to, 23 per cent apologised, and 22 per cent were disciplined in other ways. In 12 per cent of those cases, the perpetrator was transferred to another area of the workplace, however, this was significantly more likely to occur if the complainant was a man. 
Hannah has a similar story. She was 21, fresh out of uni and starting her first “adult” job in a small digital advertising agency. The management was made up of co-owners, a husband-and-wife duo and their friend, Jack*, who was Hannah’s manager.
“They tended to only hire young graduates and train them up which created a certain power dynamic which had to do with both the large age difference…and [the fact] it was our first job,” Hannah says. 
The small team often had office drinks on Fridays which Hannah found to be a good way to break the ice with the intimidating management team. “My manager [Jack] and I got a bit close over the first few months because I was working closely with him,” Hannah recounts. “Sometimes we would work late, and he would bring out wine for the two of us.” Although she thought this was a bit odd, nothing out of the ordinary ever happened, so she didn’t worry. 

I was worried about how it would affect my career

“A few months into my employment on Friday night drinks, it was just he and I left,” Hannah says. “He continued to fill up my glass and I continued to get more drunk.” Hannah says she doesn’t remember much of that night at all. “The most I remember was him rubbing my leg and saying that my eyes were pretty…I’m not too sure what happened after that, whether I was too drunk or blocked it out, but I remember getting home, sitting in the hallway and screaming in distress,” Hannah says. “I was worried about how it would affect my career.” 
Hannah was scared to go to work the following Monday, and when she did, Jack asked to speak to her alone. “He apologised and said ‘it’ would never happen again,” Hannah says. 
But the inappropriate behaviour never stopped. He would ask her for drinks and suggest catching Ubers together, purportedly since she “lived on the way”. When Hannah decided to quit, another colleague told her that the other co-owners, the husband-wife-duo had suspected something and had said “I don’t know what’s happened between [Hannah] and [Jack], I don’t know if they’ve fucked or whatever, but I don’t like her.” 
When asked if she had reported that night to management, Hannah said she hadn’t. “It would have been a losing game for me...we didn’t have [human resources] and the only management was him and the other owners were his friends,” Hannah says. “Also, I was scared to lose my job.” 
Hannah isn’t alone in this thought: it’s a common one for young women that are new to the workforce. Sophie also mentioned that she never escalated her report because she was about to be promoted and thought her complaint would put her at risk for her contract not being renewed.

If you don’t have job security and you’re reporting sexual harassment, there would always be that risk, whether it was real or not, that you might lose your job

“If you don’t have job security and you’re reporting sexual harassment, there would always be that risk, whether it was real or not, that you might lose your job, so people are very hesitant in those sorts of circumstances,” Dee says.
When I asked whether Hannah had reported the incident to the police, she shared that when she had previously reported a sexual assault incident to the police, it didn’t do anything. She said that the media had taken away her faith that there is justice for victims. 
“I think it’s scarier going through all of that and not be believed in the end,” Hannah says, “It’s scarier to be the person who ‘tried to ruin someone else’s life’ because they are ‘dramatic’ and ‘just regretted something that they chose to do’. I was worried about ruining someone else’s life for something I can just get over myself with therapy and by moving on.”
A lot of women are faced with this idea of getting over it – that they don’t need to report the incident because it is something that just happens and they should move on. This is caused by a culture of victim-blaming that often leaves victims feeling as though they need to carry the burden because they somehow deserved it or contributed towards the incident.
“It’s a very traumatic experience,” Dee says. “Victims can often initially be in shock and disbelief. They may feel guilt and self-blame wondering ‘how did this happen?’, or ‘did I do something wrong?’ There might be lots of blaming themselves which can be reinforced by other people blaming the victim and further compounding those feelings of shame and guilt.
“Some people don’t necessarily recognise that they have been a victim of a crime,” says Dee. “Their immediate response is trying to play it down, not make a fuss about what happened. Sometimes, through counselling, people can come to actually understand what has really happened to them and feel strong enough to say, ‘actually, this really did happen, and I need to report this’.”
A lot of this can be seen as a consequence of our legal system. If the justice system was able to convict perpetrators, maybe we wouldn’t see these incidents as often as we do. 
Lecturer in Criminal Law at the University of South Australia and an Associate Teacher in Evidence and Advocacy at the University of Adelaide, Lisa Parker, says that securing a conviction is difficult. 
“The criminal process is slow,” Parker says. “All Australian courts suffer from backlog and delay, which means that complainants will be waiting a long time for their case to be heard. This can often be a deterrent.
“Once there, the criminal standard of proof — beyond reasonable doubt — makes the prospect of conviction difficult. This is especially so in sexual assault cases, where often the only evidence available is eyewitness testimony. 
“The reliability and credibility of the complainant as a witness can then become a central issue at trial. While there are some restrictions on the questions that can be asked of a complainant in court, cross-examination can place unbearable pressure on a complainant. 
“But the difficult reality is that, even if allegations of sexual assault are reported to the police, many cases will not be referred to the DPP for prosecution in the first place. The lack of physical evidence or corroborating evidence means any reasonable prospect of conviction — the test for prosecution — is low,” Parker says.
We see this in action in the recent case between Sam Duluk and Connie Banoros. Mr Duluk was found not guilty of assault and Magistrate Wells said, “He’s not guilty of a criminal offence. He has been found to be a drunken pest.”

The system was created by men, about the needs of men. It wasn’t set up to attend to the needs of the whole community

Katrina dee
Why is our system like this? Dee says, “Our legal system is set up on a set of principles that meet the needs of men. 
“The system was created by men, about the needs of men. It wasn’t set up to attend to the needs of the whole community, it wasn’t set up to attend to the needs of women and children, it wasn’t set up to attend to the needs of people of different cultures. 
“Those [concepts] like the burden of proof and beyond reasonable doubt, which are lovely in principle, once you apply it to women or children, or perhaps Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples, where that legal system already marginalises those people and doesn’t tend to believe them above men, we have that challenge of being able to have the word of the marginalised believed over the word of white men.
“It’s a system that is needed to change, needs to be more strongly led in diversity, rather than in its current form.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities. Interviews have been edited for clarity.
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.

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