By the time Deborah O'Neill finished telling Australia about "AMP Annie", there were other women waiting to tell their stories to the NSW Labor senator who had used parliamentary privilege to help a woman silenced by her employer.
Senator O'Neill stood in Parliament on Wednesday and revealed the cost of sexual harassment in the workplace. She told the horrific story of Annie, a woman who loved her job, who complained about sexual harassment, who was then compelled to sign a nondisclosure agreement in order to keep her job but was forced to leave. Now she has nothing left from AMP. She was forced to retrain at her own cost, but she's made her own future. O'Neill was able to use her position in Parliament to disclose this latest ignominy. Blessedly, she could disclose this information on behalf of someone who had been coerced into signing herself into silence.
A short backdrop: we already knew financial services company AMP was a shambles. We'd heard about the way in which it had charged dead people for services. Then we heard about what it had done to Julia Szlakowski, a talented employee allegedly sexually harassed by a senior employee, Boe Pahari. He was promoted. She left the company, but fortunately for us, Szlakowski did not have to sign a nondisclosure agreement. The only good news for those who want sexual harassment stopped is that this week, two supporters of Pahari were tossed off the board and Pahari himself was demoted. A miracle, and thank heavens for the work of the companies which pressured AMP to act.
So, what happened to AMP Annie? Did AMP reach out to the woman to give her some actual help? No, no. It pretended it had no idea who AMP Annie was and wanted Senator O'Neill to tell it who Annie was. Imagine the trauma of having to deal with those bastards again.
That tells us one important piece of information: AMP has so many cases it can't tell one from the other. It is a disgrace, and a shame its licence can't be cancelled. Its social licence, of course, has already been cancelled, and it is no wonder that its Australian wealth management business has had a significant outflow of superannuation funds. I wouldn't have my money in there in a pink fit.
They told us they had daughters, as if that would make them good people, but they were just using it as a mask to hide who they really were.'AMP Annie'
At the heart of all this, and the reason sexual harassment in the workplace continues in Australia, is the nondisclosure agreement. It's a vile legal instrument that silences women and covers up the behaviour of sexual harassers at all levels and in every sector in Australia. Last year, Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins invited submissions to the National Inquiry into Workplace Sexual Harassment, and called on employers to issue a limited waiver of NDA confidentiality obligations so people could make a confidential submission. You know, so we could actually unpack this epidemic and stop it happening.
But there was one group of employees who had to jump two hurdles: Commonwealth public servants. Those employees were told they had to go through an internal ethics advisory service in order to seek a waiver before they could talk to the Sex Discrimination Commissioner and her team. That was in stark contrast to the states and territories which allowed their current and former public servants to contribute.
Sexual harassment in Australian workplaces is at epidemic levels. According to a 2018 Australian Human Rights Commission survey, 85 per cent of women have been sexually harassed at work at some time in their lives, and 57 per cent of men. Just looking at the 12 months before the survey was published, about one in four women and one in six men experienced sexual harassment. As Kate Jenkins will tell you, most don't even complain. They look for other work. They put up with it. Some never escape.
But we can take actions to stop this wholesale cover-up. I would love to be able to ban nondisclosure agreements, but that's never going to happen. Instead, we should take the advice of so many of those who made submissions to the inquiry.
As Women Lawyers Association NSW president Larissa Andelman says, this is a matter of public interest. There should be a mandated framework for all sectors, including a requirement to report on how many NDAs were issued for which kinds of behaviours. This is the only way we can stop perpetrators continuing to perpetrate. Ensure the Workplace Gender Equality Agency can monitor these reports (and force the public service to get on board). Deidentify all you like, but the numbers will tell the story. Human resources departments are riddled with the culture which says "protect the employer at all costs". I mean, what was the human resources department at AMP even thinking when it signed off on the promotion of a man who was internally penalised for his alleged behaviour?
There is a glorious recommendation in the submission to the inquiry by the Women Lawyers Association ACT. It says we should prohibit the use of nondisclosure or confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements for matters that involve sexual harassment or discrimination unless requested by the complainant. I mean, surely this makes sense. Why cover up this terrible behaviour?
By the time Deborah O'Neill returned to her office on Wednesday evening, the emails were pouring in with women wanting to share their stories. Senator O'Neill despairs. She says that some women say they have resorted to calling the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to reveal what's going on in their workplaces, but have been turned away. She also tells me one thing about Annie which makes me cry.
"Annie tells me she was not the only one. 'The guys were old enough to be our dads. Why were they asking to drive us home and asking about our sex lives? They told us they had daughters, as if that would make them good people, but they were just using it as a mask to hide who they really were'."
Surely we want a country where that kind of behaviour can no longer be erased.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.