20 Jun 2018

Australia to launch inquiry into workplace sexual harassment

2:46 pm on 20 June 2018

In what's claimed to be a world first, the Australian Human Rights Commission will launch an independent national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace.

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Photo: 123RF

The 12-month investigation will be carried out by the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, who said it would follow on from the #MeToo movement, which elped shine a light on the prevalence of women being sexually harassed and assaulted.

"The timing was right, the appetite for change is there, and we have all the functions to make sure we can help Australia lead the globe on finding new solutions for sexual harassment," she said.

Ms Jenkins said the investigation was about turning the discussion into action and would help make Australian workplaces safer.

"The ultimate aim is we will have much better guidance on how to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the current climate," she said.

How it will work

The independent inquiry will hold public consultations in major cities and regional centres, and all Australians will have the opportunity to lodge submissions.

It will also examine the drivers of sexual harassment in the workplace, the use of technology, as well as current laws and policies.

"We will look at the effectiveness of the laws but even more importantly what is going on in workplaces," Ms Jenkins said.

"Many workplaces are in fact committed to eliminating sexual harassment and they have been taking steps like policies and procedures, but there is clearly more that needs to be done."

There will also be a focus on the financial consequences of women who are targeted in the workplace.

Federal Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer said the economic impacts could be disastrous.

"It might mean that she loses her job or it might mean that she decides to go for another job but can't get a reference from her former employer - it might mean she's being denied promotions," Ms O'Dwyer said.

Ms Jenkins will hand down a series of recommendations in 12 months' time and any suggested changes will be reviewed after three years.

Other nations to watch Australia closely

Ms O'Dwyer has described the national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace as a "world first".

"We can't find any other country that's looking at this issue in such a comprehensive manner," she said.

Ms O'Dwyer believes other nations will keep a close watch on what Australia is doing.

The 12-month inquiry will cost nearly $A1 million and half of that will be covered by the Federal Government.

Survey shows higher sexual harassment rate

Both Ms Jenkins and Ms O'Dwyer pointed to figures on sexual harassment in the workplace to show why a national inquiry is necessary.

The AHRC is conducting the fourth national survey into the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment and Ms Jenkins said early indications showed the rates were higher than the previous survey.

"In 2012, we know that one in four women and one in six men had been sexually harassed in the previous five years. We also know of those people, only one in five would make a complaint," she said.

To show how widespread the problem is and how anyone can be impacted, Ms Jenkins opened up about what happened to her as a young woman.

"I don't talk about my experience a whole lot but certainly in my work experience, I think like so many women, I experienced sexual harassment," she said.

She said the #MeToo movement had helped women find their voice and helped to further reveal the prevalence of the problem.

"Like many women, I could say 'me too' but that is a big driver behind why I think everyone is interested to change that experience," she said.