Date: November 06 2012
The poor young woman finally blurted it out. She didn't want to go to the photocopier via the most direct route.
It always puzzled me until we were having a womanly heart-to-heart one day.
It turns out that the reason she didn't like the easy way to get to the copying room was because she had to pass a certain man's desk.
When she passed that desk, the man would get up and follow her to the photocopier. When she started to copy, he would come up behind her and press his groin into her buttocks until he started to get an erection.
She didn't tell anyone until the man left his job and went to become a consultant.
She didn't tell anyone.
When she first told me about this, I was devastated. Sexual harassment is a curse on any workplace. But what made it worse was that this young woman couldn't, and wouldn't, tell anyone so the criminal was allowed to get away with it. For years.
Liz Broderick, the sex discrimination commissioner, released the results of Working Without Fear: Results of the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey 2012 last week. The survey showed that not only is sexual harassment widespread in Australian workplaces, but we are not getting anywhere in our attempts to fix it.
Broderick says she found the results of the study depressing, so little has changed despite the commission's attempts to improve consciousness. ''It's a pervasive problem and it's trending upwards.''
Who are the victims? Mostly women, mostly under 40. Most harassers are likely to be male co-workers although women were far more likely to be harassed by someone to whom they reported, someone who could be called a boss.
Based on the legal definition of harassment, one-third of women have experienced sexual harassment some time in the period since they turned 15 and fewer than one in 10 men have experienced it. These figures have remained consistent since the last survey in 2008.
But what's slightly terrifying is that around one in five people have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years. That's exactly when we have all been well-advised about what constitutes sexual harassment. On top of that, another 18 per cent of men and women said they had experienced behaviours which might not be the lawful definition - but certainly made them feel uncomfortable.
What is sexual harassment?
Now that's quite the question.
It's unwelcome sexual behaviour likely to offend, humiliate or intimidate. And the thing is, it's not up to the harasser to make that call. It's up to the person experiencing the comments or the gropes or the jokes.
It's an unwelcome sexual advance, an unwelcome request for sexual favours. In fact, anything about sex which might make the target feel sad, icky, frightened, freaked-out.
I hear men and women say that comments they made were only a joke, were not serious - ''Anyone would understand I was joking.'' But the thing is that when you are young and afraid and worried about your job, it can be hard to speak out. Most sexual harassment victims are aged between 18 and 24, just as you are meant to be developing excellent professional confidence.
But, of course, the powerless come in all ages and stages, so we can't even be sure that it is just the younger people at work who are the victims.
In fact, I'd also like to institute a no-touchy rule in offices. There is nothing OK about patting someone on the bottom unless you have a happy history over 20 years of patting each other's bottoms. And, if so, you should probably be married and why the hell are you working together?
Broderick says that the one bit of optimism to emerge from the research showed that if a co-worker or bystander saw the episode of harassment, more than half reported it or took action in some other way.
The bloke who was pressing his penis into the buttocks of the young woman was bloody lucky I never saw him. There is no documented evidence in the report that talks about vigilante behaviour but I imagine it's out there. Not pretty but possibly effective.
It's hard to speak out when you live in a nation that thinks dobbing is a bad thing. That may also be because the report shows that about one-third of those who reported sexual harassment said the complaint had a negative impact on their careers.
That's double the number from 10 years ago. And that's the national disgrace.
In a culture that is anti-dobbing and at a time when organisational culture tells us we must never rock the boat, it's a wonder that those figures are as low as that.
The report encourages better education in the workplace using a variety of strategies, including putting in place reporting mechanisms.
But what kind of person is ever going to report sexual harassment if they fear the result of such a complaint is going to be a demotion?
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