Sexual discrimination at work needs to end, and small businesses can lead the way

safety-equity-respect

Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins at the National Press Club. Source: AAP/Lukas Coch.

On Wednesday, Australia watched as a courageous Brittany Higgins addressed the nation at the National Press Club. 

Midway through her truly astonishing speech, she referenced the Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry. The report, led by Kate Jenkins, acknowledged that sexual harassment and bullying is rife in the corridors of power, with over 51% of participants reporting incidences of this nature. Sadly, sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t specific to government. The recent Women’s Health Victoria’s Advertising In(equality) study found 42% of women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed at some point in their career in advertising.

Perhaps most heartbreakingly is that Ms Higgins highlighted that, if all of the 55 recommendations outlined in the report been implemented — including the introduction of a ‘positive duty’ clause — it could have “impacted every single working woman in the country. And we just kind of let that moment slide by without thinking”.

While many Australian women feel let down by the Morrison Government, this time around, galvanised by powerful voices like that of Higgins’ and Grace Tame, those in the small business community can start enacting change now.

We can enact our own ‘positive duty’. 

Positive duty in the workplace

Among the recommendations in the Jenkins report was the introduction of a positive duty on employers to “take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation” in their organisation. The recommendation would take into account factors such as business size, nature and circumstances, resources, operational priorities, practicability and cost and other relevant facts and circumstances. 

Rather than the reactive approach that’s currently taken, a positive duty would mean employers would have a legal obligation to prevent sexual discrimination. It would require organisations to be proactive in addressing the systemic inequalities women experience in the workplace, finding actionable solutions to implement organisational change. 

    

However, the government chose not to adopt this recommendation when it amended the Sex Discrimination Act in September 2021.

But employers can still take action. Unencumbered by bureaucratic red tape and multiple chains of command, small business is the best place for Australia to roll up its sleeves and get started. 

How can small businesses help end sexual discrimination?  

Quite simply, we do it ourselves. 

Rather than waiting for the law to play catch-up, it’s time small business owners recognised that change doesn’t always need to be legislated. It’s our ‘positive duty’ to provide a workplace culture where women are safe, protected and thriving.  

If you look around, you can already see examples of the nimble and innovative thinking required across small businesses.  

After discovering women made up 66% of those who dropped out of the labour market since the pandemic, I passionately advocate for flexible working policies that prioritise people over profit. To alleviate the financial insecurity that’s more likely to affect women upon retirement, our financial policies include continuity of superannuation payments during maternity leave. 

Across the border in Victoria, one of our clients, The Digital Picnic, rents a secret apartment to women leaving abusive relationships. With the knowledge that leaving is fraught with danger, this small social media agency is providing a safe space for women to land and the out-of-the-box thinking required to solve gender inequality, whether it’s at work or in the home. As a result, The Digital Picnic has inspired organisations ten times its size to contribute to the cost of more of these apartments. 

These are just two examples that illustrate we don’t need to let a lack of action on a national level stop the small business community from enacting change.

If we take up the challenge and lead from the front, we hold those in power accountable for their action — and inaction.

In the conclusion of her address, Brittany Higgins mentioned that “we each have a responsibility to one another, and a role to play in making things better for the next generation”, and she’s right. 

We’re at a tipping point. Future generations depend on us to get this right.

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