How to change the culture of sexual harrassment

The Australian Human Rights Commission found that an astonishing 85% of Australian women have experienced sexual harassment in their workplace at some point in their lives. So far from being a horrible but random occurrence, sexual harassment in Australian workplaces seems to be systemically and culturally embedded. As Australian as throwing a shrimp on the barbie.

The survey of over 10,000 people shows that sexual harassment happens widely across Australian industries, to women from all population groups, and across the nation. Women who face intersecting disadvantage, such as women with disabilities, young women and women who do not identify as heterosexual, are more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace.

Disappointingly, this new research under-represents migrant women because the survey was conducted in English. However, sexual harassment is a significant issue for migrant women. Research in the United States has shown that half of sexual harassment cases occur in industries where large numbers of migrant women work: hospitality, retail, manufacturing and health/social assistance.

In Australia too, we know that migrant women are concentrated in these industries. In addition, they are more likely to work in precarious and poorly paid jobs with fewer opportunities for decision-making roles. Eleven percent of the Australian workforce is made up of temporary migrant workers, a group particularly vulnerable to exploitation and disadvantage.

We can no longer think of sexual harassment as an instance of ill-directed sexual desire from some hapless perpetrator who “just can’t help himself”. And we cannot simply rely on individuals to fix the problem. As Sara Ahmed shows, addressing harrassment by relying on individuals to complain often leads to further punishing women workers.

Instead, we need to recognise that sexual harassment is an expression of power. It is embedded in the gendered hierarchies of Australian workplaces and has the effect of keeping working women in their rightful place. If sexual harassment is as culturally ingrained as the common Australian BBQ, the message it sends is that women should get their hands off the tongs, stay off the grill, and stick with making the salads (and underestimating the value of salads!).

Workplaces should be safe and equal places for all workers. They will not be safe or equal for women until sexual harassment is eliminated from the social fabric of workplaces. This is a cultural problem that needs transformative and systemic solutions. Let’s redesign the barbie, share the cooking around, make new recipes, and expand who is sitting at the table. We’re sure to find that the final spread will be much more balanced and healthy.