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Making safe spaces for reporting harassment



As the waves of the #MeToo movement continue to challenge society's culture of gendered abuse and harassment, we are ushering in a new era of women not just talking about their experiences, but reporting them, too. This is not a small achievement — it's a significant step to break through centuries of socialised oppression that actively tells women the behaviour and choices of others is 'not meant to be taken seriously' or that they're being too 'emotional'.

Construction worker and his manager on site (credit: milanvirijevic via Getty)But cultural change takes time, and while the message is getting through that sexual harassment and abuse is wrong, there remain too many barriers for women who are trying to do something about it. In the past year, there have been several cases that made headlines after women reported alleged sexual harassment against high-profile and powerful men and were subsequently subjected to smear campaigns to tarnish their reputations. Catherine Marriott, Tessa Sullivan and Christie Whelan Browne had their motives questioned and they in turn have faced repeated and sustained attacks by parts of the media and the public.

Marriott, a well-respected rural Australian advocate, reported former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce to the National Party for sexual harassment in February. Within days, her identity was leaked to the media, reportedly by those inside the party, and she was accused of being politically motivated.

Photographs of former Melbourne City councillor Sullivan wearing a bikini and media reports alluding to her being sexually promiscuous were splashed across a newspaper front page after she claimed that then Lord Mayor Robert Doyle had harassed and groped her. And actress Whelan Browne has faced a 'torrent of abuse' and faces a defamation case brought by the man she and two other women accused of sexual harassment and abuse.

The theme, and the message, is clear — if you report sexual harassment, then you will be punished for it. This not only blames victims for the actions and behaviours of others, but it actively seeks to dismiss, blacklist and castigate those who are not willing to stay silent. It's not enough that #MeToo has created a space for women to finally, and openly, discuss the systematic abuse, harassment and discrimination they have experienced. We also need to create a safe and supportive environment for them to report these behaviours.

In the US, a survey of women who work in tech revealed the high price that those who reported sexual harassment are forced to pay. The Women Who Tech survey of 750 women revealed that 53 per cent had been harassed but only 16 per cent had reported it. Less than half who did said that their companies believed them, only 12 per cent were happy with the response they received and a whopping 35 per cent said they faced repercussions.

Another investigation into women who report workplace sexual harassment paints a similarly depressing image — 75 per cent of women faced retaliation for reporting.


"A complaints process that respects anonymity and privacy, is objective and investigates complaints in a timely fashion needs to be a priority for all businesses and organisations."


Sullivan has spoken openly about the massive toll her decision to lodge a complaint, and the massive backlash she received, has had on her and her family. She has described how her life was 'ripped apart': 'When something like this happens, you lose so much confidence and you feel so dirty and ashamed and humiliated. You think [it's] the most disgusting thing that ever happened to you and that everyone's going to know about it. There is absolutely no benefit to coming forward with something like this. I'm not getting a payout. I lost my job. I'm getting nothing. All I want is the truth.'

We know through the Harvey Weinstein case that there is strength in numbers — if one woman comes forwards, it encourages others to do the same. But when women see someone get torn down, they take that as a lesson to remain silent, lest the same thing happens to them.

A complaints process that respects anonymity and privacy, is objective and investigates complaints in a timely fashion needs to be a priority for all businesses and organisations. They also need to reflect on their own workplace culture that fosters shame and fear among women employees if they fear to speak up.

Everyone, especially those in positions of power, has a responsibility to create an environment that welcomes complaints, protects privacy and refuses to indulge in petty games that mess with women's reputations and lives. The Australian Human Rights Commission recommends five steps to create the right type of workplace environment — be fair, confidential, transparent, accessible and be efficient.

If you can't — or won't — create a workplace environment that supports women who report sexual harrassment or abuse, then you simply can't afford to be in business.



Alana SchetzerAlana Schetzer is a Melboune-based journalist and academic.

Main image credit: milanvirijevic via Getty

Topic tags: Alana Schetzer, #metoo



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Existing comments

Even as we are in the 21st century Jane Austen's words still ring true: "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands." Even as women top university courses, they still enter the workplace at a disadvantage. I would venture that women supporting each other to a greater degree may help.

Pam | 04 November 2019  

It seems Pam that nothing has changed (particularly God-created human nature) since the days of the most eminently successful Jane Austen, a great writer widely admired by, surprise, surprise many men! In her lifetime, the greatest flack she copped came from other women. Interestingly, even in the days when men dominated the workforce (my youth and, I suspect , yours Pam) discrimination against other men was rife and destroyed ambition and careers. I worked in a university department that refused to employ Catholics or Jews and even though I was appointed on academic and experience credentials, the discovery of my Catholicism after appointment led to a concerted effort to place every obstacle in the way of my progress including making life difficult in the hope I would resign. This sort of stuff is not gender related as the modern world would like to suggest but is born out of threat to insecure individuals by another perceived as a possible usurper of their position or a spotlight illuminating their inadequacies.

john frawley | 04 November 2019  

Thanks John Frawley! I always enjoy reading your comments, even when I disagree. I don't disagree with what you are saying here. I've just listened to a podcast about Anthony Albanese, a politician I have a regard for and a hope that he will do well. He is the son of a single mother who received a disability pension. And he was brought up a Catholic, although now non-practising. Go, Albo.

Pam | 04 November 2019  

Pam, I read Anthony Alanese's life story some time back. I had a look to find the book just now, but it is lost somewhere in the pile! His is truly a rise from a very difficult background, son of a single mum to his present position as the Leader of the ALP. His quest to locate his father was absolutely inspiring. Like you I very much admire the man and his solid Christian principles.

Gavin | 04 November 2019  

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