Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

In July 2020, Robyn Lenn OAM, Chair of ICJW’s  Status of Women Committee, together with Mary Liling, ICJW Co-Chair of Human Rights in Geneva, joined a webinar which focused through an international lens on the findings and recommendations from the 2018 Australian enquiry on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces.   

This was the fourth Respect@Work national enquiry since 2003. Awareness of continuing gender power imbalance has driven these enquiries and encouraged proactivity rather than reactivity in dealing with this issue.  

Participants were:

  • Dr Purna Sen, UN Women’s Executive Coordinator and Spokesperson on Addressing Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Discrimination
  • Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner
  • Julie-Ann Guivarra, Australian Ambassador for Gender Equality.

Dr Purna Sen stated that she had worked with UN Women on sexual harassment since 2017, noting the increasing numbers of complainants globally. She noted that lots of promises have been made but we haven’t done enough on this issue which must be put at the centre of our actions.

  • Sexual harassment stems from gender inequality, is expressive of structural inequality, is a global concern and needs to be dealt with globally.     Recognise and understand links between inequality and harassment – our challenge is to balance these factors.
  • #MeToo has raised awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment   worldwide – since 2017 there have been 25 million Twitter complaints about sexual harassment. This has empowered new voices to be heard.
  • Thanks to the #MeToo movement, everyone knows now what sexual harassment is. Expectations of a safe working place for women have shifted, demands on employers are different. Media now sees it as inexcusable.
  • In Australia in June 2020, media disclosed complaints of long-term sexual harassment by a judge within the country’s High Court. There is evidence of a culture of sexual harassment within Australia’s legal profession. 
  • Domestic violence and sexual harassment have continued and grown globally during the recent months of Covid 19.

Recommendations for Respect@Work include:

  • Awareness of the legal framework of each country is important. 
  • There need to be changes to laws dealing with sex discrimination and sexual harassment as a systematic issue, not just individual matters.
  • There is a need for legal prohibitive and punishment laws to be active.
  • The legal sector and employers must take responsibility for protecting workers, recognising the changing nature of work globally.
  • We need to look at cultures and beliefs and then work to promote cultural change.
  • Voices of victims and survivors must be heard.
  • Perpetrators and their experiences must also be looked at.

How and by whom can this be progressed:

  • International CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women) which reports to the UN should now include sexual harassment as an issue within countries. Elimination is the aim.
  • UN General Assembly:  Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 Global goals set in 2015, aim to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by the year 2030) includes as Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower women and girls. A Target within Goal 5 states: “Adopt and strengthen sound policies and   enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.”

  • Suggestion to set up a UN Group of Friends (a coalition of member states to further particular goals) to eliminate sexual harassment.
  • Dr. Liz Kelly CBE, Director of the Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan Universityis a key advisor in this area. She said: Earlier training has not been effective enough – it must fit the context eg. the type of job the woman holds.  Sexual behaviour is a fundamental issue. Information and training must be face to face, based on victims’ experiences. Then follows an audit of such experiences, collective information.

Conclusions: Dr. Purna Sen :

  • We need to be in it for the long haul to eradicate it.
  • Be prepared to find it uncomfortable.
  • THIS IS EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS! Raise everyone’s awareness.

Report  by ICJW  Status of Women Chair Robyn Lenn OAM.