The Unique Challenges Faced By First Nations Women In Reporting Workplace Sexual Harassment & Assault
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.
Sexual harassment is unfortunately quite common in Australian workplaces, but First Nations people are particularly at risk of being victims.
The most recent survey from the Australian Human Rights Commission (2018) revealed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were more likely to have experienced workplace sexual harassment than people who are non-Indigenous (53% and 32% respectively).
On top of this, First Nations people face a series of unique challenges that make reporting this harmful behaviour more difficult.
For most Indigenous women and non-binary people who have experienced sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, there is a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victims.
Indigenous women worry that if we disclose sexual harassment to anyone, we will be asked, “What did you say?” or “What did you do?” which is really code for, “How did you provoke them?”
In some particularly toxic workplaces cultures, our clients at Violet Co – a legal and consulting practice servicing women and Indigenous peoples – have reported being told they were employed to “satisfy a quota” to meet a diversity and inclusion target.
Indigenous women don’t feel welcome or safe to report sexual harassment for fear of being victim-blamed by colleagues who already resent us because they think our jobs were handed to us, while they had to work for it. They think their “merit” gives them authority to qualify our competence and the trustworthiness of our disclosures.
The barriers to reporting sexual assault are rooted in institutional racism and intergenerational trauma which manifests in financial, health and educational inequalities.
Completing any level of tertiary education is considered a huge achievement for an Indigenous person. We live in a patriarchal and institutionally racist society that makes us feel like we have to work twice as hard to be considered just as good as our white male counterparts.
Indigenous women don’t feel welcome or safe to report sexual harassment for fear of being victim-blamed by colleagues who already resent us because they think our jobs were handed to us, while they had to work for it.
We are often branded “good Aboriginals” when we land financially secure long term employment, but labelled the “angry black woman” if we discuss the racial discrimination we had to challenge to get there. It's as if our job offers were given to us as a “favour” and we owe it to the recruiters to humbly and gratefully accept the “chance” they took on us, so we must sit down and shut up.
So when we're sexually assaulted at work, we don’t want to speak up, because we don’t want our hard work to be overshadowed by our trauma. We don’t want the sexual harassment we experienced to be the only thing we are remembered for, because we know that often businesses see us as the “liability” before the perpetrator.
Many Indigenous women are single mothers, survivors of intergenerational trauma and are breaking the cycle to provide a better life for themselves and their children.
Indigenous women and non-binary people are usually not paid the same as their male counterparts and do not have equal opportunities for leadership and promotions. There is a disparity in leadership in favour of men.
Sexual harassment is pervasive in workplaces. There is a lack of adequate and culturally appropriate representatives and processes for disclosing sexual assault and harassment, and too often white men are appointed as workplace health and safety officers.
Each of these factors has the cumulative effect of stripping Indigenous women of their dignity and re-traumatising them further. Many Indigenous women and non-binary people feel like they have few choices but to self-manage the sexual assault and harassment that happened to them, because management is unlikely to make the organisational changes required to address and prevent it in the future.
The onus shouldn’t be on Indigenous women to disclose sexual assault and harassment; the onus should be on their workplace to prevent it.
What Can You And Your Organisation Do To Support First Nations Women In Disclosing Sexual Assault At Work?
Remember, changing workplace culture starts with shifting attitudes on the ground. People connect with people. So, from our team to yours, here are our best tips for support and prevention of workplace sexual harassment:
For survivors and bystanders:
Take detailed notes and keep documents and other material relating to the incident so there is a record to provide as evidence and to demonstrate a pattern of behaviour.
Get a lawyer’s advice early
You don’t need to act on it, but you need all the information available to you to exercise your agency and autonomy.
Protect yourself before during and after you disclose your sexual assault or harassment at work. Use grounding techniques to practice self-care, discuss your mental health with a doctor that you trust and ask for a referral for affordable health services in your local area.
Assert your need for impartial support
If your workplace informs you that they will investigate the incident, you can insist on an external investigator who uses trauma-informed methods, gender and race-based approaches, and is a woman, or Indigenous woman or man. Take a neutral support person with you to every meeting.
Put your needs first, take up space and (don’t ask) tell those involved what your preferred solution is. Assert your right to choose a solution that is culturally safe. Know that you can use transformative mediation to unpack systemic issues.
Tips for businesses and organisations:
Treat sexual harassment as a workplace safety issue
Trauma impacts mental health. Employers have a duty to ensure a safe workplace - think through and consult in the workplace about what can be done to address behaviour that would put women at risk of harassment - then *actually* do something about it!
Workplace diversity matters
It can lower instances of sexual harassment. Honestly assess the levels of representation in your organisation, and role requirements, and address inequities. Introduce a gender action plan that takes into account intersectional issues. Close gender (and intersectional) pay gaps, and look at gender diversity and seniority in each aspect of the organisation, not just overall.
Review the language and messaging around disclosures
Language matters. We want to avoid re-traumatisation. Recognise that the word “reporting” gives a sense that control of the process then leaves the hands of the victim/survivor, whereas “disclosing” gives a sense of sharing an experience without handing over control. “Story” can imply a fiction. “Account” is not a lived experience and can be contested.
Discuss the importance of “catching” disclosures in a trauma-informed way
Create a clear pathway for women to disclose/report. Trauma-informed people in positions of responsibility must be qualified to “catch” and action disclosures, and also need to appreciate the intersections of gender, sexuality, race and disability.
Transformative mediation to allow victims/survivors to inform your workplace response
Employ Indigenous and non-Indigenous external investigators and mediators to help you look at systemic issues, and address individual instances of sexual assault in a positive way that assists individuals and your organisation. Ask for staff feedback.
Have an independent, external, trauma-informed workplace investigator on standby
When issues arise it is important that a woman who “gets it” investigates it. Trauma can be deepened with poor “investigation” processes.
Develop a sexual harassment safety plan
Include multiple, culturally safe referral pathways with follow-up processes to support those affected throughout their journey.
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.
Karen Iles is the Founder, Director & Principal Solicitor at Violet Co and Amanda Morgan is a trauma-Informed victim-survivor advocate and paralegal at Violet Co, a legal and consulting practice working with clients to strengthen social outcomes predominantly for women and Indigenous peoples.