Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has brushed aside his comments on the “sex appeal” of a female colleague as a “daggy dad moment”, but a similar statement could cause trouble in the workplace, an expert warns.
On the campaign trail in the lead up to the September 7 federal election, Coalition leader Abbott made the comment referring to Liberal candidate for Lindsay, Fiona Scott.
“They are young, they are feisty and I can probably say have a bit of sex appeal,” he said.
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Accused of being a “misogynist” by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard in her famous speech in Parliament that was watched by nearly 2.5million people on YouTube, the comment won’t bode well for Abbott as he tries to distance himself from Gillard’s criticism.
However, more importantly, the comments raise the question of whether it is OK to remark on the appearance of colleagues, positively or negatively, particularly in relation to sexuality.
Maurice Blackburn Lawyers principal in employment and industrial law, Kamal Farouque, told SmartCompany this morning that referring to the appearance or sexuality of a colleague in the workplace could be perceived as sexual discrimination.
“Sex discrimination is a difference of treatment of men to women,” he says.
“You are going into danger territory if a manager or employer describes a woman’s appearance in this way.”
Farouque says Tony Abbott was asked to compare the former candidate with the new candidate, but he did not refer to their competence, knowledge or likely benefit to the community if voted in, but rather referred to looks. He says in the workplace this commentary could be seen as demeaning.
“If it is one colleague to another not (not manager to junior) it can still be sex discrimination, depending on the context, if it diminishes their status,” he says.
Farouque explains that these issues all need to be taken in context, as there may be situations of light-heartedness that do not cause offence to the recipient. It is most likely an issue if the problem is repetitive.
He cautions, however, that it is safest to focus on the “merits, capabilities, and work attributes that people bring to the job”.
“Don’t target appearance, and in any way that refers to sex appeal.”
While sex discrimination is different from sexual harrassment, there have been a number of workplace sexual harassment cases in recent years that show what happens when these issues are taken to the extreme. The 2010 case between former David Jones chief executive officer Mark McInnes and staff member Kristy Fraser-Kirk, was notable, with the case was settled out of court, reportedly for $850,000 to Fraser-Kirk.
Earlier this year an Australian employee of software giant Oracle won a sexual harassment case against the company in the Federal Court, with the business forced to pay an $18,000 fine.