HRM shares some of the key takeaways from AHRI’s International Women’s Day event and expert advice on how we can start to eliminate sexual harassment at work.
Something about this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) felt different. This day which usually celebrates how far women have come instead reminded us of how far we still have to go.
While we’ve come leaps and bounds since the inaugural (but unofficial) IWD in 1928, the events that have unfolded in our country’s political epicentre over the last few weeks are a harsh reminder of all the work that lies ahead of us.
If you’ve seen the UN Women Australia’s ‘When Will She’ll Be Right?’ campaign, you’ll know that the organisation predicts global gender equality is still a century away, although it hopes to achieve 100 years of work in just 10.
A momentous part of making that happen is learning how to eliminate sexual harassment and discrimination in our workplaces, and not just trying, but demanding it happens.
“This isn’t an easy task,” AHRI’s CEO Sarah McCann-Bartlett, said as part of her opening address at AHRI’s International Women’s Day event on 9 March.
“It’s one that needs prioritisation, commitment and, importantly, action from the board, executives and managers. Our workplaces have to be psychologically safe to enable victims to speak up, on their own terms and in their own words,” she said.
“We need to make sure our internal policies, procedures and systems support this. And we have to actively educate and talk about how to make our workplaces safe for all.”
McCann-Bartlett described the conversations at the IWD event as the “collective and urgent” next step, so let’s dive into what the speakers had to say. If you’re after a quick summary, we’ve included some dot points of the experts’ action items at the end of each section.
The “perfect storm” we’ve all been waiting for
Gretchen Carlson says she never planned on being the “poster child” for workplace sexual harassment, but in the same breath said, “but if I don’t do this, who will?”
Speaking with 7:30 host Leigh Sales, the former Fox News presenter talked about the “perfect storm” that has culminated in a worldwide conversation about eliminating sexual harassment at work.
Both Sales and Carlson said, as journalists, had they pitched a story about sexual harassment early in their careers, they would have been laughed away by their editors and producers. But now, there’s a groundswell; more and more influential people are (finally) starting to care.
After filing her lawsuit against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, Carlson was told to prepare for retaliation from the organisation.
“One thing my lawyer said to me was, ‘They will kill you. They will malign you. They will dig up everything on you. So be prepared for that. And so I did, the best I could be.”
However, Carlson was stunned that Fox News instead took a proactive approach. It immediately set up an investigation and just two weeks after her claim was made, a disgraced Ailes was fired.
“It was this perfect storm of women being believed, perpetrators being held accountable, the media paying attention to these stories, [that helped] to circulate it all.”
While this signals to Carlson that people are finally sitting up and paying attention, she says true cultural change can take years to settle, “if not a lifetime”.
“I’m not okay with 1000s, possibly millions, of women being forced out of the workplace and becoming invisible.” – Gretchen Carlson
While Carlson has been able to make impressive progress in her fight against sexual harassment off the back of her law suit, her situation was brought into stark reality when Sales asked her about the hit film, Bombshell, that was created about her alleged experience at Fox News.
Other than confirming she had seen the film, Carlson was prohibited from saying much more. She couldn’t confirm if the fictionalised portrayal was accurate or how she felt about it. Her husband wouldn’t be able to. Her children wouldn’t be able to. Her parents wouldn’t be able to. That’s how tight her non-disclosure agreement is. This is what she’s working to tear down: the culture of silence that surrounds situations like her own.
She currently has a bill sitting with the US government that would put an end to this and she’s confident it will pass. She told the IWD audience that she’s inviting corporates to get on the right side of history now, before she forces them to through legislative changes.
Helping the voiceless to speak up
Those supporting someone to speak out about sexual harassment at work need to remember how much of a personal choice something like this is, says Carlson. It took her years to come forward, but she did it for the thousands who couldn’t.
“The number one thing women say to me is, ‘Thank you for being the voice for the voiceless’ because they felt like nobody had ever cared about their story,” she says.
“The sad, incredibly painful, reality was that 99.9 per cent of the 1000s of people who’ve reached out to me have never worked in their chosen profession ever again, simply for having the courage to come forward… I lay awake at night thinking about that. I’m not okay with 1000s, possibly millions, of women being forced out of the workplace and becoming invisible.”
Gretchen Carlson’s advice for eliminating sexual harassment at work
- Engage independent investigators to handle sexual harassment claims. She believes there are some “really good people” who work in HR, but she doesn’t feel the function is the right mechanism to handle these complaints. At least not solely.
- Comb through your policies and meet with your executives to see if there are any silencing mechanisms in your contracts – such as non-disclosure requirements. If there are, get rid of them.
- Take meetings with those in your team who want to talk about creating more honest and open platforms to make their work experiences better and safer.
- If you do experience sexual harassment, make sure you record everything you saw. Depending on state legislation, you might be able to physically record it. If not, at the very least, take notes that you can later refer to. This advice could pertain to witnesses, too.
Our boards need to do better
So what can HR do right now in their workplaces to start putting an end to this? How can we keep more women in the workplace?
The four IWD panelists – Kate Jenkins, Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner and member of the Australian Human Rights Commission; Libby Lyons, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency; Miriam Silva, Chair at InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence; and Marian Baird AO, Professor of Gender and Employment Relations at the University of Sydney – all believe that 2021 could be a watershed moment for tackling this issue, but they’re approaching it with a healthy dose of skepticism.
“In the last few weeks, we’ve had a confluence of issues and events. There is rage… women are angry and so are many men. They want change,” says Baird. “However, I think it’s not necessarily the one and only moment. We need to maintain the argument and we need to keep working on the issue. We have to be careful we don’t go backwards.”
Jenkins adds that she’s worried that people aren’t passionate enough about ending the elements that underpin sexual harassment, such as gender equality in society and our workplaces.
“I’m not sure that there’s the same passion for actual gender equality, which was a protective factor [against sexual harassment],” says Jenkins.
“In almost every board in Australia, they’ll have a standing agenda item that looks at their health and safety steps. I don’t understand why boards are not stepping up and insisting that gender equality and sexual harassment complaints are also a standard agenda item for every meeting.” – Libby Lyons, director at the WGEA.
Lyons adds that her data shows that between 80-90 per cent of organisations have policies, sex-based harassment training and strategies for managing sexual harassment, but have no concrete ways to make people accountable for outcomes.
The other panelists feel organisations need to demand more from their boards.
Silva says, “When you don’t get the change from the CEO [or the] chair, no matter how much amazing work people like Marian, Libby and Kate do, and how much evidence-based research there is, nothing will change.”
Lyons adds: “In almost every board in Australia, they’ll have a standing agenda item that looks at their health and safety steps. I don’t understand why boards are not stepping up and insisting that gender equality and sexual harassment complaints are also a standard agenda item for every meeting.”
Baird agrees. “I think it’s essential. HR should be represented on boards, and often they’re not. We need to both get that information to the board level, and they have to respond to it.”
Jenkins says to keep an eye out for some research she is launching in May related to this.
“It’s about what [information] should be collected by the boards and what they should be sharing publicly for investors. The demand is there and boards need to catch up.”
The IWD panelists’ advice for eliminating sexual harassment at work
- Baird says we need more transparency around responses to sexual harassment.
“A leader might take action, reprimand or dismiss someone who is a known perpetrator, but unless everybody knows they were punished that way, people don’t have faith in leadership. We need transparent reactions that are consistent from the top.”
- Silva says take time to update your current information and train your people (especially those in positions of power) to follow these procedures.
- Instead of focusing on training bystanders – which is often relying on the least powerful people to protect others with little power – the panelists say we need to encourage “influential bystanders” (i.e. managers) to speak up. We can’t ignore the power dynamics that are at play here.
- Silva says HR should never forget it’s their job to hold the CEO to account. If they have trouble doing that, “that’s what your board is there for”.
- Jenkins says make sure you’re thinking about how sexual harassment could be taking place in a hybrid or virtual environment. Do you have policies and processes for this? She also says we should think about women’s experience of virtual working more generally. “Put a gender lens on everything that you do, especially [since] we’ve changed how we work.” Without this, she fears women may fall behind.
- Baird suggests looking at issues at an industry level because often the challenges are specific to the context in which people work.
AHRI’s commitment – this is just the start
“We’ll be refining these further over the coming weeks to provide even more detail, including a range of scenarios and case studies,” says McCann-Bartlett.
“And while, like most industry or professional associations, we usually provide these materials [exclusively] to members… I am pleased to announce that we are opening our sexual harassment templates and guides to all.”
“We will work with other relevant associations and professional bodies, including the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA) and the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) to ensure they’re relevant and practical for a wide range of businesses across Australia,” says McCann-Bartlett.
“AHRI will also work with our members, the Australian Human Rights Commission and other specialists to develop practical and timely guidance for HR and employers that will support and inform the Respect@work
In line with recommendation number 45 of the Respect@Work, McCann-Bartlett also announced that AHRI will review and update its sexual harassment training and education accreditation processes.
Visit the AHRI International Women’s Day resource centre for helpful resources to help tackle sexual harassment at work.