Two in five women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Let that sink in for a moment. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue through survivor interviews, informative features and ongoing news coverage. The ultimate goal? To help dismantle workplace sexual harassment and assault in Australia.
I was in the bathroom stalls in the middle of a punk concert, holding a laptop up to the ceiling when I spoke to sexual consent education activist Chanel Contos for the second time. We were discussing the progress of her curriculum-revolutionising 'Teach Us Consent' petition, that's leading the charge in pushing for national and state sex education reforms.
Somewhere between balancing our Zoom call on a mountain of toilet paper rolls stacked against a graffitied wall, and shouting my questions over a live music set, I opened up to Chanel about my own experiences of sexual harassment.
I was 19, I told her, very early in my “career”, and at a cross-industry mixer event. I was groped by a man 40 years my senior, who was in a respected position of power and disrespected me the moment his hand slid up my dress, his lips landed on my face and his fingers grabbed the back of my neck. I spared further details of the traumatic experience because I don’t like to give oxygen to the encounter that made me feel voiceless.
“But it doesn’t really matter, I mean, it’s in the past,” I told her.
“It always matters,” she replied, and for the first time, that grip on the back of my neck loosened.
I’ve reported about the consent curriculum changes Chanel has pushed for over the past year, observing how the movement has transformed from a “reckoning” on social media into a “resolution” in parliament.
But in the same stride of progress that’s been made in high school education systems and thinking of my own experience of harassment, there remains a glaring gap in the way we deal with the absence of consent education in our careers.
Recent Legislative Changes
In the final week of August, sexual harassment was made a sackable offence under our nation’s legislation – marking both an achievement for equality and a stain on our nation’s historical concept of it. The change occurred after nationwide cries and Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Respect@Work report.
In the report, Jenkins presented 12 recommendations to improve workplace safety, after 18 months of chronicling thousands of experiences of workplace harassment – only six of which were accepted by parliament.
Among the recommendations rejected was the imposition of “positive duty”, one of the key policies that Jenkins told parliament was essential to “shift the culture to prevention” rather than combatting problems as they arise.
Realising Workplace Consent Education Needs Improving
When I turned 20, I faced another form of harassment at work, one that was insidiously concealed under the guise of friendship. Tea breaks turned into regular, unsolicited romantic advances and messages about work duties became explicit, sexually degrading remarks. Fortunately this time, the person was reprimanded – but the impact lingered.
What I experienced at a young age translated into a complex discomfort and confusion that I grappled with for a long time. Both incidents riddled me with fear and mistrust of people I came across professionally. I often felt suffocated by the hand that was once on my neck, and the workplace friendship that turned into harassment. I found being a wallflower was easier than being targeted.
Fortunately, they were isolated incidents that I quickly learnt were neither normal nor my fault. I worked in spaces where I was nurtured and supported by colleagues, learning many had either faced similar treatment or simply knew it had no place in society overall, let alone a workplace.
But it did make me wonder if mine and my colleagues' education around consent in the workplace had adopted a more holistic approach, would I, and so many others. have faced the experiences we did?
Everyone who works legally has to receive a formal sexual harassment education. More often than not, it occurs in the form of a minutes-long video you can play as background noise – and that’s it.
In a year where we’ve demonstrated time and time again how explicit and nuanced consent education needs to be, I’m baffled that this is the bare minimum when two in five women in this country face an incidence of harassment at some point in their career.
There Are Solutions
“We need targeted education and programs that are understandable, adaptable and make sense of the issue within that industry,” Abbey Kendall, Director of the Working Women’s Centre in South Australia, says.
The organisation, which creates survivor-led education seminars and tailored sexual harassment workshops, adopts a unique model, leveraging casework from representing individuals to inform their advocacy and education initiatives.
Kendall likens current industry-standard sexual harassment education to a “box-ticking exercise”, affirming “this will not change the community.”
“[Education] requires a separate focus and recognition outside of the general workplace and safety modules – that’s not to downgrade the importance of other workplace training, but to highlight how destructive sexual harassment is,” she shares.
Employers are interested in training as many people as they can, but often these programs don’t educate the person they’re attempting to change the minds of.
abbey kendall, DIRECTOR OF sa working women's centre
A Culture Of Confusion
As I grew up, I became privy to numerous people sharing their experiences of workplace harassment, more often than bearing witness to a glum sense of solidarity as they responded, “something similar happened to me too.”
Me Too, two words that began a global revolution into the imbalanced nature of gendered violence and discrimination, became synonymous with the experiences I heard while reporting on sexual harassment and assault. Yet the sentence that could follow it – “but here’s what we can do” or “here’s how we change” or “here’s what the hope is”, rarely followed.
Our Watch is an organisation advocating for the prevention of violence against women and their children in Australia. Its CEO Patty Kinnersly says the cause of sexual harassment – and the glaring gendered skew of women and non-binary people experiencing it – is a product of both confusion and complacency with the “underlying social context of gender inequality.”
“Many other forms of oppression, including racism, ableism, ageism, homophobia and colonialism, intersect with gender inequality to influence the rates and dynamics of violence against particular women,” she explains.
Detailing the drivers of harassment, Kinnersly points out the desire to control, gender stereotypes, and a pack mentality continues to perpetuate the issue at hand.
“Male peer group culture is grounded in disrespect towards women,” she explains, noting, “We see this in masculine workplace cultures where it is the norm for male colleagues to laugh at sexist jokes, or where there is a ‘boys club’ culture in a workplace which excludes women from activities and opportunities.”
Speaking to current examples of sexual harassment modules, Kinnersly says five-minute surveys, brief questionnaires and a list of scenarios you have to “problem-solve” in order to get a pass mark are simply “not enough.”
“It cannot properly address the drivers of gendered violence or change the conditions which allow for violence to occur,” she explains.
“Employers and workplace leadership need to champion and model equal and respectful behaviour and establish a workplace culture where violence, harassment and inequality are not tolerated, and where there is equality and respect for all employees, regardless of gender, age, sexuality or background. “
This must go beyond ‘raising awareness', such as a morning tea or poster.
Patty Kinnersly, CEO OF Our Watch
"It was not until I listened to another colleague detail their experience of sexual harassment that I understood my own – a common symptom of the problem," Kinnersly says.
“Too many Australians do not know that violence against women, including sexual harassment, is preventable and that everyone has a part to play in creating safer workplaces.
“There is an increasing focus on responding to this problem, and this is good to see, but we are still not talking enough about how to stop it from happening in the first place.”
Kinnersly, whose organisation has spearheaded reform around sexual harassment education, adds “abuse and disrespect is not something we have to live with or accept”, transcending the guilt many women and people (including myself) harbour of their own experiences.
I often think of what happened when I was younger and how I rarely discussed the true impact it had. How it fostered a shame I felt incapable of speaking about, because that hand that grabbed my neck, the gesture that told me I’m devoid of power, taught me to be silent.
In writing this, that grip loosens, and in educating generations to come with nuance and nurture, it’s my hope it will no longer exist.
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.