In what has been labelled a world-first, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner has announced an inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, which could lead to an overhaul of existing regulations on employers.
Following the global #MeToo movement sparked by sexual harassment and misconduct in Hollywood, countless examples of sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere in society were recounted around the world, including here in Australia.
That has led commissioner Kate Jenkins to launch a formal inquiry to determine the actual prevalence of harassment occurring in Australian workplaces and the impacts it has on victims, as well as to employers and the broader community.
The Sex Discrimination Commissioner forms part of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
“The National Inquiry will involve an in-depth examination of sexual harassment in the workplace, nation-wide consultation and extensive research,” Commissioner Jenkins said.
“Importantly, the Inquiry will provide employees, employers and all members of the public with an opportunity to participate in developing a solution to ensure Australian workplaces are safe and respectful for everyone.”
She added that existing legal frameworks on sexual harassment at all levels of government will be put under the microscope, while complaints to state anti-discrimination bodies will also be reviewed.
“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,” the commissioner said.
Throwing the government’s support behind the inquiry, Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer announced a $500,000 contribution towards the cost of the inquiry.
“No one should have to suffer sexual harassment at work, or in any other part of their lives,” Ms O’Dwyer said.
“This inquiry will consider the drivers of sexual harassment in the workplace, the use of technology and social media, and the legal framework, as well [as] existing practices to inform practical recommendations that will assist Australian workplaces [to] deal with this sensitive and difficult issue.”
According to Ms O’Dwyer, more than one in five Australians over the age of 15 have experienced sexual harassment, two-thirds of which occurred in the workplace.
“We already know that the personal and career consequences of workplace sexual harassment are very significant. The organisational impacts are also substantial, including reduced productivity, high staff turnover, absenteeism, compensation claims and early retirement,” she said.
“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 Australian businesses.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.