Comment

Jamie Briggs and Chris Gayle shine a light on workplace harassment

The government must ensure its rejection of violence against women and support of a fair go for all is matched by workers' experiences.

Controversy over the behaviour of Jamie Briggs towards a female public servant and cricketer Chris Gayle's comments to a female sports journalist have exposed the grim reality of widespread sexism and harassment in the workplace.

The familiar but tired comments dismissing such behaviour as a joke or even a compliment, and those calling it out as overly politically correct or sensitive, have once again been rehearsed.

Fortunately, however, a good proportion of the discussion has also focused on what these incidents say about sexism and harassment in the modern-day workplace, and in wider society.

This is exactly where attention should be.

The latest data shows harassment at work, particularly for women, is much more common and far more entrenched than many of us might care to admit.

The 2015 Australian Public Service Commission State of the Service Employee Census surveyed about 92,000 public servants. It asked if they had been harassed or bullied at work in the past 12 months.

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It found almost one in five female public servants (19 per cent) reported they had experienced some form of bullying or harassment in the previous 12 months. That equates to almost 17,000 female employees experiencing bullying or harassment in 12 months.

In comparison, 14 per cent of male public servants also reported such experiences.

There is a strong possibility the figures underestimate the extent of the problem and that bullying and harassment are underreported. In part this is because respondents might worry that their responses could find their way back to their employer or supervisors.

The leaking of the photo and details of the diplomat at the centre of the Jamie Briggs scandal shows that those fears are not entirely misplaced.

While there are a range of bullying and harassment experiences that are likely to be captured by this broad measure, some very severe, some less so, that so many respondents answered yes highlights these recent events are not rare, isolated incidents.

Analysis also shows that among female respondents, those with caring responsibilities were much more likely to report experiences of bullying or harassment, as were those aged in their 40s; those in large operational agencies (as opposed to policy, regulatory or specialist ones); those who weren't managers or executives; those without at least a bachelor's degree and those who worked full-time.

In many cases, it is our most vulnerable female public servants who are the most likely to report bullying or harassment.

It is easy to assume that the experience of the diplomat in Hong Kong and more generally the bullying and harassment reported in the APSC census results from a few bad apples. The high incidence of reported bullying and harassment, particularly among female public servants, suggests that this is clearly not the case.

Furthermore, an increasing body of research shows that in addition to the explicit, overt cases of bullying and harassment highlighted in these recent high-profile events, most of the unfair treatment in the workplace experienced by women as well as other vulnerable groups, results from unconscious or implicit biases. That is bias that is automatic and unintentional, expressed as internalised stereotypes, prejudices and beliefs influence decisions and behaviours.

An increasing body of international research also shows such experiences of bullying and harassment lead to increased stress, poorer mental health, and even physiological and biological wear and tear on the body including cellular ageing and indicators of inflammation and chronic disease.

APSC Census data show that when asked about their thoughts about staying on in their agency, 45 per cent of those who reported bullying or harassment said they would like to leave in the next 12 months. This is almost double the rate for those who did not report bullying or harassment (24 per cent). Job turnover costs the public service, and it costs all of us when it affects the services that we receive.

There is no reason to suggest that female public servants are more likely to be affected by bullying and harassment than women in other sectors. Indeed, there are many industries with much higher rates.

If we are to truly embrace innovation and creativity both within and outside the public service, we must address issues of bullying and harassment experienced by women, as well as other vulnerable groups.

All of us in the workforce need to be aware of how our behaviour affects others and advocate for policies and procedures that minimise the effect of a person's gender, race/ethnicity, religion, disability status, sexuality, age and so on on their ability to obtain a job, and to do their job in a fair and safe setting.

We must continue to call our government to account on these matters, and in doing so expect them to lead the way both internally and externally to ensure the rhetoric of condemning violence against women and supporting a fair go for all is matched by the daily experiences of workers on the ground.

Dr Nicholas Biddle is economist and deputy director of the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods. 

Dr Naomi Priest is a Fellow at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.

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