Workplace Health & Safety

Australia’s Human Rights Commission to begin world first national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment

Georgina Dent /

The federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins will lead a national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace.

The announcement was made on Wednesday morning by the Human Rights Commission and the Minister for Women, Kelly O’Dwyer, on behalf of the Turnbull government.

The 12 month long inquiry will be jointly funded by the Human Rights Commission and the government and will seek to identify the cost that sexual harassment poses to individuals and businesses.

“Sexual harassment in the workplace is an issue of economic security and it needs to be examined in that way,” the Minister for Women, Kelly O’Dwyer MP, told Women’s Agenda. “International and national coverage of the #metoo movements and related cases have highlighted the prevalence and detrimental impact of sexual harassment on individuals and organisations.”

“The National Inquiry will involve an in-depth examination of sexual harassment in the workplace, nation-wide consultation and extensive research,” Jenkins said.  “We will examine the current Australian legal framework on sexual harassment, including a review of complaints made to state and territory anti-discrimination agencies. In making our recommendations, we will consider the changing work environment and existing good practice being undertaken by employers to prevent and respond to workplace sexual harassment.”

While the prevalence of harassment at work is increasingly well understood the cost is not. For too many victims of sexual harassment at work, who are overwhelmingly female, there is often a financial penalty attached: whether that’s because they leave their place of employment, are forced out or get overlooked for promotions and other opportunities.

O’Dwyer says it is an unsatisfactory component of an unacceptable problem.

“We already know that the personal and career consequences of workplace sexual harassment are very significant,” she says. “The inquiry will draw on economic modelling so we will have a better sense of how much it is costing individual Australians as well as well as Australian businesses.”

O’Dwyer says the HRC is uniquely placed to undertake the project due to its independent status, its legislative mandate in relation to sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and its specific expertise in relation to workplace sexual harassment.

“This Inquiry – a world first – will consider the drivers of sexual harassment in the workplace, the use of technology and social media and the legal framework, as well existing practices to inform practical recommendations that will assist Australian workplaces deal with this sensitive and difficult issue,” O’Dwyer says.

It will cost an estimated $900,000, of which the Turnbull government is contributing $500,000.  The minister for women says funding this accords with its commitment to improving women’s safety and providing the right economic settings so that women have every opportunity to engage in paid work and access financial security.

More than 20 per cent of people over 15 years old in Australia have been sexually harassed, with 68 per cent of those harassed in the workplace.

O’Dwyer told Women’s Agenda she is confident with Kate Jenkins’ leadership and expertise at the helm, the inquiry represents an opportunity for meaningful change.

“We need to continue working to create a society where this kind of conduct is unthinkable, and where sexual harassment at work is not something people simply have to put up with,” Jenkins said. “I believe this national inquiry is a huge step in the right direction.”

The significance of an inquiry of this nature being held cannot be understated. Even a year ago it would have been almost impossible to fathom. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the scourge of harassment is no longer being swept under the carpet.  Sunlight, they say, is the great disinfectant and a national inquiry amounts to more sunlight than workplace harassment has ever received.

On Tuesday evening ahead of the announcement being made Tracey Spicer applauded the inquiry.

Not only will the inquiry take some pressure off the volunteers who have been fighting for change but it provides a formal commitment – supported by the government –  that sexual harassment is an endemic problem that needs addressing. To say this recognition and action is welcome is an understatement.

This article was originally published by Women’s Agenda

NOW READ: As claims against Don Burke continue, here’s what employers can do to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace

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Georgina Dent

Georgina Dent is a journalist, an editor, and a passionate advocate for gender equality. The former lawyer is a regular media commentator, public speaker, MC and is the contributing editor of Women's Agenda.

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