Gender bias, mental illness, and domestic violence have affected the daily lives of many Australians since Federation but the primary victims across all three have been women.
Until recently, business leaders held the view that these were solely matters for public institutions, or best dealt with in the privacy of the home. After all, the orthodox view of corporate social responsibility from the 1980s was best expressed by the late Milton Friedman, who said: “business has no other responsibility than to make the largest profit it can.”
This ‘take no prisoners’ approach excluded any real focus of attention on social issues by workplace leaders, outside of certain acts of corporate philanthropy. Fortunately, those CSR attitudes have changed dramatically in the past 15 years. Corporations are now very conscious of their relationships to the community and explicitly manage their CSR impacts.
Business perspectives on gender bias and mental health have changed over time, but recognition of domestic violence as a business challenge has been slow to follow. With gender bias, the simple facts are that men represent 50 per cent of the population but have had held 90 per cent of the top executive and board positions since the Second World War. However, recent research has shown mixed-gender teams outperform single-gender outfits. Women are now roaring into the workforce looking for lifetime careers after graduating from tertiary institutions at greater rates, and often with better marks, than their male counterparts.
Prevalence in Australia
Mental health research shows that in Australia, not only does one adult in five have a mental health problem each year, and almost one in two has a mental health problem over a lifetime, but these are business issues capable of being addressed positively. Moreover, it’s now widely accepted that all workers can be trained and equipped to spot mental health problems in others and to call in specialist help when needed.
Domestic violence, on the other hand, continues to produce a greater business cringe response than the other two. Nevertheless, this challenge requires a similar head-on response to the other two. In 2005, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that about 1.2 million women had, from the age of 15, experienced domestic or family violence at the hands of a male partner. Many of these women suffer from mental health problems. At least 800,000 of these female victims are employed. That’s about one in six female workers in this country. A few years ago, VicHealth identified it as the major cause of disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15 to 44 years.
That this is just a woman’s problem is patently a myth. For every working woman who is a victim, there is a male perpetrator who is most likely also going to work somewhere each day. Allowing for similar rates among same-sex and heterosexual couples, this means at least one in six workers is either a victim or a perpetrator. As well as being highly correlated with mental health issues for both genders, domestic violence also correlates with workplace bullying and sexual harassment of women by men — two prime causes of sustained gender bias at work.
The overall economic cost is also high
In 2004, VicHealth noted that the cost of domestic violence to Australian businesses was more than $500 million per annum. Adjusting for equivalent incidence rates nationally, and economic growth over the past decade, this means the national cost probably sits at $2.5 billion.
So in addition to the annual number of working victims being equivalent to eight MCG AFL Grand Final crowds, the annual cost to the nation is approximately one 10th of the amount by which our economy grows each year. The time has come to recognise domestic violence is also a major workplace problem and the need for better behavioural training and support programs for victims and perpetrators.
In so many other ways, business has recognised that what occurs in the home can have a profound impact on what happens in the workplace. Just as business has been one of the leaders in combating issues such as depression and gender bias, so too can business be one of the leaders in combating domestic violence.