Trust me, Preventing Sexual Harassment is Not Rocket Science

Preventing sexual harassment is not rocket science.

Seriously, it isn’t.

29 June, 2020

But it takes absolute authenticity, determination and a plan.  I am an ex-employment and safety lawyer. These days, I am a culture transformer (aka a WHS + Culture Consultant and Speaker). I specialise in the prevention of workplace bullying and harassment. I have worked on literally hundreds of cases in the workplace bullying and sexual harassment space over the past 17 years in Australia and the UK, as either a lawyer, consultant, advisor or investigator.

I have seen and heard everything. I have seen organisations at their worst (for e.g. following a workplace death), and organisations at their best.

Almost every single case I have worked on, the behaviours and outcome were absolutely 100% preventable. But they weren’t prevented, and the result was often serious harm. Frustrating? Yes. Harmful? Yes. Can we change this? Yes.

When I heard the findings from the High Court last week against former Judge, Dyson Heydon it honestly made me feel sad and disappointed. Because when I took my oath on my admission to the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 2003, I took it very seriously. It meant something sacred to me. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I just thought, how can this happen? By someone who in such a position of responsibility and power? By someone I deeply respected.

To be really honest, I also thought ‘how do I now genuinely stand up in front of audiences, wave the stick of provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act around and talk through previous cases to deter perpetrators and push for change when this has happened? What’s the point?’.

Well the point is this. These findings have proven that sexual harassment in Australia is still of grave concern. That is doesn’t discriminate (excuse the pun). It happens in all industries at all levels. It proves that we are still way behind where we need to be. It proves that these brave women had to band together to fight this fight, probably the fight of their life. It proves that many Australians are still unsafe and disrespected at work day-in-day-out.

There are many moving parts to this. It is about inequality, history, power, cycles of behaviours, the list goes on and on. For me, I try to simplify it. Un-rocket-science it, so I can change it.

So I focus on respect and safety. How is it any different to being exposed to heights on a building site without fall protection? I can promise you I have seen at least equal or more serious consequences to victims’ health after being sexually harassed or bullied. In both cases, the workers are at risk, often serious risk and harm, and they simply must be protected.

Sexual harassment is a known safety risk. We know it happens, we know that the legal industry does no better than other industries, and we all have our stories. But what are we really doing to stop it?

To shift ‘this’, there must be a proactive risk-management approach. There must be an authentic and preventative strategy, consultation must take place, questions must be asked about the ‘why’, there must be effective reporting processes where anyone affected can report an issue and not feel like their world as they know it is about to end if they do. Leaders must ‘get it’ and be champions of change. There must be a plan.

Last year, Martyn Campbell, Head of SafeWork SA gave a clear warning to Australians following a serious workplace bullying case (Chenoweth). This warning had a profound impact on me. He warned that having policies isn’t enough, that your expectations must be ‘ingrained’ into your culture. It is about culture.

There has been so much important research and work done in this area over the past few years by the Australian Human Rights Commission and many associated organisations and advocacy groups. We need to get serious and implement the recommendations and finally get on the front foot. Now that sexual harassment has been expressly prohibited for over 30 years. I think it is time.

And for the legal industry, if we expect everyone to listen to us, trust us, look up to us, we must all be the shining example, we must do all this better, we must all behave like Leaders, we must all be Aware, we must all be Accountable, we must all act Safely and Respectfully, we must all be Active Bystanders and call this behaviour out, we must all be Champions of Change, we must all take on the responsibility to ensure all people are safe and respected at work. We must shift.

And finally, to the brave women who stood up, risking so much, I now look up to all of you. I wish you the very best as you move through this time, I sincerely hope that it is onwards and upwards for you all.