Researchers Dominique Allen and Adriana Orifici from Monash Business School have warned that there are barriers in the legal system that prevents women from complaining about sexual harassment. Orifici and Allen said that recent allegations against Mr Heydon highlighted the reasons why most women might not raise the issue of sexual harassment at work. These reasons include power imbalances between the perpetrator and the victim, a pronounced hierarchical structure in the workplace, lack of workplace process and fear of being labelled a troublemaker. ‘The events of last week reinforce that all workplaces not only need to have a suitable policy about sexual harassment that sets out procedures for responding to complaints, but also has policies and practices that instil a culture that seeks to proactively prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the first place,’ Ms Orifici said. ‘It shouldn’t be up to the woman who has been sexually harassed, whose career may be left in tatters, to take action on behalf of every other woman in the workplace,’ said Associate Professor Allen. ‘Those who are brave enough to come forward and report sexual harassment must be supported by their workplaces and legal system,’ she added. Ms Allen argued that there needs to be a regulator to monitor where employers do not take steps to prevent future incidents. She said that equality agencies and the Fair Work Ombudsman are not currently able to carry out this function. Ms Orifici added that people who experienced sexual harassment are more likely to approach assistance if there are transparent and robust processes and complaint channels in place. Complaint channels ‘should not be used to minimise, to silence or to diminish a person’s complaint but instead needs to be a tool used to address the issue and to eliminate the risk of future unacceptable conduct,’ Ms Orifici said.
Orifici and Allen warned that these issues are compounded while people are working from home. ‘Remote work arrangements make employers even more reliant on affected employees coming forward with complaints in order to detect potential misconduct,’ Ms Orifici said. Ms Orifici said it was important for employers to reinforce behaviour they expected from employees through training, communications and policies to reduce the risk of inappropriate behaviour.
According to the head of Canberra Women’s Legal Centre, demand for harassment and discrimination services has increased 60 per cent during the pandemic. Bethany Hender, head of employment services, said the centre is expanding its employment practice team to keep up with clients. ‘Over and over we’ve heard from women forced to choose between keeping themselves and their families safe or keeping their jobs and their income,’ she said. Ms Hender said that she’s seen an increase in female employees who have been refused the JobKeeper payment by their employer. She cited incidents where women were being asked to work more hours to justify the higher pay they receive under’ JobKeeper. ‘Employers can change hours and shifts if you’re a casual obviously, even a long term casual or even a long term ongoing employee your shift hours can change with consultation and notice but what would not be reasonable is if the only reason they are increasing your hours is because of the JobKeeper,’ Ms Hender said. ‘That would not be reasonable, and it would be reasonable for you to refuse that and you should still get JobKeeper as long as you meet those eligibility requirements,’ she concluded.
Ms Hender said that the Centre was also ‘inundated [with] requests from working parents and pregnant workers,’ Ms Hender said. ‘The pregnant worker will often be the first one considered for the redundancy and it’s really difficult because the employee is the one that holds all the information about the business and it’s sometimes really difficult for an employee to challenge whether something is a legitimate redundancy when we don’t have access to that information but there’s been quite a few where it’s been quite obvious that pregnancy was a factor in that,’ she said.
Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirmed that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on female workers. The ABS found that 3.9 per cent of men lost their job during the pandemic, compared to 5.3 per cent of women. And while 7.5 per cent of men saw their hours cut, 11.5 per cent of women suffered from fewer hours in their jobs.