No means no

No means no

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The workplace - still a man's world?

I have chosen to write my thesis for my Graduate Diploma of Workplace Health & Safety on how sexual assault both within and outside of the workplace affects women workers.  There is a dearth of literature from Australian sources on this, but it stands to reason that, if the UN stats show 1 in 5 women will be raped within her lifetime and working women spend a third of their day in the workplace, some of those assaults will happen at work, at a work-related event, or with a co-worker as the perpetrator.

According to Andrew Stevenson, writing last year in the Sydney Morning Herald, "... most victims of harassment are female, as are 85 per cent of sexual assault victims."  That statistic is totally unacceptable, and, in the context of the Workplace Health and Safety legislation, must be addressed as a very real issue concerning the provision of a safe workplace for women.

Two Australian reports by the Australian Human Right Commission - the 2008 "Sexual Harassmant: Serious Business Results" national telephone survey and the 2012 "Working Without Fear" national telephone survey showed that sexual harassment is alive and well and thriving in many Australian workplaces.  According to the 2012 survey "Just over one in five (21%) people in Australia has been sexually harassed since the age of 15, based on the legal definition of sexual harassment, a slight increase since 2008 (20%). A majority (68%) of those people were harassed in the workplace."  

From these surveys it is reasonable to conclude that employers are not doing a very good job to date of providing harassment-free workplaces for their female workers.  In addition, many employers have no form of EAP (Employee Assistance Program) which would help female workers who have suffered sexual abuse either in the workplace or in a home situation which might affect their ability to work to their full capability.  It is astonishing that a employer would allow nearly 14% of their workforce (68% of 20%) to be potentially functioning under capacity simply because the employer has failed to provide a safe workplace in an area of identified risk.

Part of the problem, as inadvertently identified by the AHRC, is that sexual assault and sex discrimination within the workplace is not seen as a WHS issue, but rather as a human rights issue.  While human rights, including the right to work free from sexual discrimination and harassment, are enshrined in human rights laws, those laws have far less import to a business that workplace health and safety laws.  For that reason, sexual discrimination and sexual assalut within the workplace must be seen as workplace health and safety issues, not simply human rights issues, and should be accorded the same importance as workplace injuries sustained by identified hazards and risks.

An astute WHS adviser in a mixed-gender workplace would be doing their employer a huge favour if they managed sexual discrimination and harassment as part of the WHS process instead of passing the buck to a designated (but often unwilling) workplace Contact Officer.

How many readers know who their WHS person is?  And how many of you know who your Contact Officer is?  I venture to suggest most would know the first person but not many would be aware of the second.         


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