Workplace sexual harassment rates aren't getting better. How do we make it stop? – ABC News

Workplace sexual harassment rates aren't getting better. How do we make it stop?
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Workers say it is not good enough that rates of sexual harassment have failed to improve over the past four years — and there are things employers should be doing to fix the problem.
WARNING: This article contains detailed descriptions of sexual harassment
Despite widespread media attention on the problem over the past couple of years, the latest national survey investigating the issue shows rates of sexual harassment in the workplace have stayed the same, with 33 per cent of workers experiencing harassment over the past five years.
The Australian Human Rights Commission's (AHRC) national survey looking at sexual harassment in the workplace shows that 89 per cent of women, 64 per cent of men and 99 per cent of non-binary people have been harassed during their lifetime.
That is up from 85 per cent, 56 per cent and 89 per cent respectively in 2018. 
But the AHRC says with only 62 non-binary people responding to the survey, those particular results should be interpreted with caution. 
This year's survey also reflects a growing number of Australians working from home or remotely, leading to a higher prevalence of tech-facilitated abuse.
Sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins is calling on employers to step up their action on this issue before new workplace safety laws come into effect in 12 months.
"The time for patience is over," she says.
"I want to see people's lives improve, for women, for people of all genders, I want them to be given the respect and equality that they deserve.
"Only around two-thirds of workers said their organisation has a sexual harassment policy and only half said that their organisation provided information to workers about how to report.
"The promising news is that almost half of workers said their line managers had shown leadership in preventing and responding to sexual harassment. And knowing how important those line managers are, I really want to see more of that."
When Claudia was working at lingerie chain Honey Birdette, she said she was subjected to sexual harassment on a regular basis.
"That's absolutely not what I expected when I signed on," she says.
"For a brand that actually promotes female empowerment … it's actually quite disappointing that it's the complete opposite."
Before she left the company late last year, she was harassed by customers and had managers ask her to clean the windows of the store so passers-by would be able to see her legs.
"When sales were low, I would have quite senior staff and senior management come out and ask me to clean the windows in the front of the store so that passers-by, or potential customers, could see the back of my legs, which were Honey Birdette branded stockings that I would wear," she says.
"I've seen staff members kissed by customers … there's customers [who] have attempted to solicit staff, there's customers [who] have exposed themselves to staff in changing rooms."
Women under 30, such as Claudia, are particularly at risk of sexual harassment at work, according to the AHRC, with 46 per cent of those aged 18-29 years and 41 per cent of women of any age having experienced it in the past five years.
Perhaps more disturbing is that 60 per cent of women aged 15–17 were sexually harassed at work in the past five years as well.
Claudia says sales tactics pushed by management at Honey Birdette exacerbate these issues, enabling customers to harass staff.
"They had an instructional booklet during my time that would instruct you to 'fantasy sell' … where you approach a customer and you ask them intimate and explicit questions about their sex life," she says.
In 2016, staff campaigned to get the company to lift its game and protect workers in Honey Birdette stores.
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They said they were facing regular sexual harassment from customers and a sexist dress code imposed by management who, they alleged, were also ignoring reports of harassment.
Now, in 2022, Claudia and other employees are campaigning with the Young Workers Centre for management to take their concerns around harassment seriously.
"They know these things happen, but yet there is extremely limited protocol," she says.
The ABC asked Honey Birdette's parent company, Playboy, several questions about what it is doing to tackle harassment.
Playboy did not answer those questions, instead sending a statement saying: "We have made significant changes in our leadership and practices since our acquisition (of the business) last year."
The company did not respond to questions asking what those changes were.
According to the AHRC's national survey, the retail industry is where staff such as Claudia face one of the highest rates of sexual harassment.
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Women continue to be more likely to be sexually harassed in the workplace at higher rates than men are, as do under-30s, non-binary people, queer folk, First Nations people and people with disabilities.
Karen Iles — principal solicitor at Violet and Co Legal and Consulting — says sexism and other forms of discrimination are underpinning widespread sexual harassment in Australia.
"We have a systemic issue, rooted in a worldview of male dominance — it needs a shake-up," she says.
"Women who are Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, are gender-diverse, have a disability, are from a migrant community and many other factors are more likely, more at risk, to be targeted by (mostly) men who use sexual harassment as a way to exert power over women.
"What we observe is that women make a complaint and then end up leaving the workplace. This comes at a huge financial, emotional and personal cost.
"This is the norm — this is the cost of workplace sexual harassment."
Aside from perpetrators stopping their behaviour, Ms Iles says there are things employers can be doing to protect their staff from sexual harassment by improving the way they respond to complaints in the first place.
"Businesses, organisations and government employers must proactively manage it, and eliminate it, like any other business risk," she says.
The federal government is also pushing employers to do better, with significant changes to laws relating to sexual harassment being approved by the parliament earlier in the week. 
Employers will now have to prove to the AHRC that they're taking steps to eliminate sex discrimination — including sexual harassment — in the workplace.
And for the first time ever, the AHRC has asked workers if their employers are doing enough to protect them from sexual harassers at work.
Almost three quarters of workers agreed their organisation's leaders were committed to establishing a safe working environment, free from sexual harassment.
However, 37 per cent of people reckon their organisation needs to be doing more to prevent and address harassment and 40 per cent of those who made formal complaints said nothing had changed at their workplace as a result.
Despite these findings, Ms Jenkins is hopeful real change is on the horizon.
"Right now, we're at key inflection point in the trajectory of this change, one that fills me with optimism," she says.
"Optimism that if community engagement remains high — and I believe it will — then five years from now, we will see the equality and fairness that our laws are actually designed to bring, will have come to life."
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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