Australia is finally talking about sexual harassment. For boards and management, 2021 will be a critical year to lead on this central societal and political issue that has acute repercussions for workplace culture, reputation and wellbeing.
It wasn’t the first time
the managing director had stopped a board meeting to call out sexist behaviour. On this occasion, the problem was a classic example of everyday sexism.
A coffee order had arrived and a female director jumped up to collect it. The MD got the coffee instead and, on returning to the table, told his colleagues they shouldn’t have let it happen. The men were uncomfortable, but the point was made. It’s a small incident compared to the devastating sexual violence reported from Canberra this year, the MD says, but important to draw attention to, nonetheless.
The AICD Director Tool, A director’s guide to preventing and responding to sexual harassment at work backs this up, citing a “culture of respect, natural justice and safety” as a precondition for eliminating sexual harassment. “Staff can recognise where statements about sexual harassment are merely lip service and where that is so, it may foster a culture of impunity and tolerance for sexual harassment.”
The Sexual Harassment National Inquiry, spearheaded by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins GAICD, covers how power disparities in both society and the workplace have enabled sexual harassment. The commission heard, overwhelmingly, that gender inequality was the key power disparity that drives sexual harassment.
Gavin Fox-Smith GAICD, CEO of Omnigon Care Services, a Champion of Change and former Johnson & Johnson executive, alongside several leading directors and CEOs, says now is a critical time to act to fix the factors that produce power imbalances and, in turn, unacceptable workplace behaviours.
Unless business leaders demonstrate the right behaviour, organisations can have all the policies they like, but the problem will not change, Fox- Smith says. “Business, like most Australians, is pretty disappointed in the responses [to sexual harassment allegations in parliament]. Business is taking stock and in just about every conversation I’ve had recently, in whatever context, somebody raises what is going on in Canberra.”
Sexual harassment has finally become part of the national conversation, says outgoing Medibank CEO Craig Drummond, who is also president of Geelong Football Club and a member of the national Champions of Change group.
The business community must now come together and do more, he adds. “No workplace is immune to this problem, so every business needs to take more action.” The scale of recent revelations has some directors hoping this is an inflection point for boards in prioritising these issues. “We’re having conversations we weren’t having a few years ago, when I started out on corporate boards,” says Marina Go MAICD, chair of Ovarian Cancer Australia and The Walkley Foundation and a non-executive director of EnergyAustralia, the Autosports Group, 7-Eleven and Super Netball Australia. But she agrees that more often than not, it is female directors flagging concerns or asking for information on gender equity and sexual harassment. Go says in her experience of working in corporate Australia for many years, men may be supportive of these steps, but they usually aren’t raised by them. “I’m often the person to raise the gender issue, but I hope that will change. It would be nice [for it] to not always be a woman who does that.”
Gender fairness and women’s safety might now move from the margins to the mainstream in workplaces and beyond. But despite the high-octane media coverage, there are no guarantees this will eventuate without more momentum.
“We’ve never had, and I can’t recall, a bigger moment in the past 15 years in which we can shift the discussion and actually shift society in the right way,” says Fox-Smith. But he remains “super afraid we are not going to take [the opportunity]”.
In the weeks following political staffer Brittany Higgins’ revelations, public comment from individual CEOs and chairs was muted. “It’s disappointing not enough leaders were standing up and saying, ‘Actually, this is a real issue and we need to deal with it’,” says Fox-Smith.
No workplace is immune to this problem, so every business needs to take more action.
The moment was so big, we have to not just be aspirational but also definitive on what we expect from boards, he adds. “The big chairs set the tone. How many [senior directors] are standing up to say, ‘We have to do better?’”
A shift in focus is also needed. Sexual harassment is not a woman’s problem to solve, says Drummond. And it’s not enough for men to say they’ve never engaged in this behaviour. “They need to listen and learn from women, and call things out as they see and hear them.”
Many boards have been asking the questions about workplace harassment for some time, says Go. But her own experience of dealing with a sexual harassment case on one of her boards a few years ago made it clear to her that consensus was needed — not only on conducting an independent investigation, but also on acting upon the findings. When this occurred, and an employee was dismissed, Go had to remind the shell-shocked directors that their job was to protect everybody employed at the organisation.
“It’s a hard road and it takes courage,” she says. “The case for directors now is: are you prepared to do the right thing at this point? This is a moment and the drums are beating loudly.” The next steps in the boardroom are as much about intention and attention as they are about policies, according to several directors.
I believe this should be part of the OH&S standing item on every board agenda. Board members are personally liable for that.
Given the board’s role in setting the culture of an organisation, says Fox-Smith, what could be more culture-setting than equality and fairness for all? “That means a board better understands where and what your gender issues are. Is it something as measurable as the pay gap? Are you seriously addressing your WGEA [Workplace Gender Equality Agency] data? Do you understand and know how many sexual harassment cases are in front of the board? I wonder if it’s even reviewed at the board level. I would say every board of an ASX 50 company has an OH&S dashboard of some kind — how many have a sexual harassment dashboard?”
Victoria’s Gender Equality Commissioner,Dr Niki Vincent, agrees harassment is a core workplace safety issue for all boards. “I believe this should be part of the OH&S standing item on every board agenda. Board members are personally liable for that. Boards still do not get into enough detail on this — members tend not to get into that detail unless it’s financial, but they do have to understand [it] because it’s such an important part of culture.”
Time for transparency
Boards must deal with incidents formally and transparently — and consequences must be clear. The days of pulling aside a director or executive for a private chat about their behaviour are over, says Drummond.
The Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report was released in March 2020. Some business leaders Company Director spoke to expressed surprise its recommendations are yet to be implemented.
While Jenkins has acknowledged the report was released just as the nation was being enveloped by a pandemic, it wasn’t until April 2021 that the federal government announced it had accepted in whole, in part, in principle or noted all 55 recommendations. The May federal Budget made a commitment of $9.3m over four years to support the Respect@Work Secretariat and implement some of the report’s recommendations.
The report identified several concrete ways to increase the effectiveness of preventing sexual harassment and to decrease the harm caused to victims. It also recommended establishing a positive duty requiring employers to take “reasonable and proportionate measures” to eliminate sexual harassment in the their workplaces, ensuring a focus on prevention.
All the steps recommended are achievable — from social change strategies to education/ training and improving legal frameworks. Moreover, many corporates already have policies in place. “The tools are all there and if you did an audit, [in] the majority of well-run companies, you would find sexual harassment policies and reporting mechanisms,” says Fox-Smith. They just need to be put into practice.
Risk mitigation demands regular board attention to gender data and sexual harassment reports, with the aim of sounding warning bells and preventing incidents. Meanwhile, the onus is on management to have systems in place for addressing incidents, as well as longer-term prevention levers. Sexual harassment is underreported, says Drummond. Workplaces need clear, safe and trusted processes so that people who have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment can report it. This culture of silence and victim-blaming, he points out — along with cultivating a business community where the culture is so imbalanced that women fear that reporting harassment will impact their career trajectory, reputation and income — must come to an end.
And there’s a need to look at where the reporting is handled, particularly in the initial stages. It may generally sit in HR, says Fox-Smith; sometimes that is appropriate and sometimes it’s not, because you need the data to be widely available to move the discussion.
Prevention includes addressing the power imbalances that can contribute to sexual harassment, and examining processes that make men more likely to be promoted and therefore over-represented in decision-making.
Tackling this problem means representing all gender identities across every arm of a business and covers recruitment processes right up to the board level, says Drummond, adding that women occupied half of all of group, senior executive and managerial roles at Medibank in 2020.
Acknowledge that this is a problem
At EnergyAustralia, the board gets regular reports and transparency about complaints, says Go. The topic is discussed with employees and there are many signs showing the board takes the issue seriously — and has done for some time.
However, this isn’t the norm. While senior women are expected to speak up about sexual harassment, some men struggle with the discomfort — and their scepticism about women’s experiences can also act as a brake on effective action. “In my experience, it is quite a sensitive topic,” says Fox-Smith, who believes explicit leadership is an essential circuit-breaker. He would like to see men at the helm of larger organisations adopt the same steps taken with the marriage equality plebiscite in 2017. “All those companies [who backed the ‘Yes’ campaign] put our names in the paper — there were almost 900 companies — and all said, ‘This is a no-brainer.’ If we did something similar, that would be an unequivocal statement about sexual harassment. Someone has to say this is a problem.”
The reluctance of male leaders to speak openly about the problem may be due to fear, suggests Go. “My own thought was whether this was seen as politically volatile at the moment, and maybe there is some anxiety. There may be nervousness about something in their past... I’ve learned you think people know [what constitutes sexism and harassment], but they don’t.”
This contributes to the strong undercurrent of denial that has often characterised the leadership response, says Vincent. “You can’t keep your head buried in the sand about this stuff. You need to know you have a problem, and the only way you’re going to find it is by measuring, testing, looking at your data and analysing it.” The message for leaders across all sectors is to urgently take intentional steps to acknowledge, report and deal with incidents that have too often been hushed up. The cascading revelations of the past few months have made a long-overdue reckoning in our workplaces an imperative.
Strategies in action
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to addressing gender equality and workplace sexual harassment. A range of programs and legislation introduced in the public sector over the past few years have set clear goals and accountability structures, and most can be applied to organisations across other sectors.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a Women in Leadership (WIL) strategy that sets out areas of focus to address gender inequality. The framework aims to understand and tackle perceptions of gender-based discrimination, as well as practical ways of addressing it, and offers accountability measures for when these standards are not met. The more recent WIL Refresh (2020) includes tools such as “Calling Out Everyday Sexism” cards to help spread the message. Since the strategy was introduced in 2015, the number of women at Senior Executive Service Band 1 level has increased from 36 per cent to 48 per cent in 2020.
Following the Australian Defence Force Academy Skype affair in 2011 and the Broderick Review, Defence set up the Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Support Office (SeMPRO) in 2013 to offer services to anyone impacted by sexual misconduct. It also provides information to senior personnel on how to manage reported incidents. The services are confidential and clients decide the information they share and can remain anonymous if they choose. The focus is on the client and SeMPRO does not run investigations. Its services can be used without making a report to Defence, the military or civilian police — known as “restricted reporting”.
The Victorian Gender Equality Act 2020, which came into force on 31 March, will cover about 11 per cent of the state’s workforce employed in the public sector, universities and local councils. But it’s actually what every organisation needs to do, says Victorian Gender Equality Commissioner Dr Niki Vincent.
The Act requires organisations to conduct a workplace gender audit and then publicly report that data (to employees, their governing body and union reps) to see what needs to change and how they will achieve it, she says. “The key thing is, that when they submit their plans and data, it is published. The Act requires reasonable and material progress every two years and all of this is enforceable right up to taking them to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal if I need to get an order to make them comply — which I hope I never have to do.”
Catherine Fox hosts the AICD-CommBank podcast Board Level
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