30 September 2021

Hazards for women in the workplace inadvertently overlooked due to power imbalance

| Dominic Giannini
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Renée Leon

Renée Leon (right) was appointed the head of the ACT Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Steering Committee by Women’s Minister Yvette Berry. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

There needs to be a greater discussion about the onus employers have to prevent sexual assault and harassment within the workplace, the head of the ACT Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Steering Committee said.

Renée Leon, who was appointed to the role by Women’s Minister Yvette Berry in June, said employers have always had a duty of care towards employees to ensure the workplace is safe from reasonably foreseeable hazards.

But a power imbalance between men and women, such as more men being in decision-making roles, means that some employers are not able to understand the hazards that women and minorities face because they have not had similar experiences.

“Whenever there is some incident that causes women’s safety to be discussed, you often find men really surprised to find out things like the women they know will not go running at night for fear of what might happen,” Ms Leon explained.

“A lot of men do not live this reality or experience the woman’s point of view, and a lot of workplaces are like that as well.

“It is part of broader community education [about consent and sexual harassment] … to help employers see how some of their existing practices or arrangements might not actually be very safe. Some of this goes to community awareness more generally, which is that a lot of men do not realise how different the world looks from a woman’s perspective.”

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The Committee oversees separate working groups focused on sexual assault responses, prevention and law reform within the ACT. A workplace reference group has also been established to analyse how employers would implement any recommendations.

Ms Leon did not advocate either way on the topic of having a positive responsibility for employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, saying the Committee was considering the issue and she did not want to pre-empt any recommendations.

The reference groups have continued to meet weekly despite the ACT’s lockdown, moving the meetings to an online discussion.

Ms Leon said she expected there to be a lot of “intense work” in October as the reference groups present their findings and the Steering Committee collates the work and develops its recommendations for the ACT Government.

The Human Rights Commission recommended the introduction of a positive duty for employers in its Respect@Work report.

The recommendation would put the onus on employers “to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation”.

The Federal Government did not include the model as part of its legislative package that passed at the start of the month.

The legislation passed six of the report’s 12 recommendations that required legislative reform.

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Poor way to begin this important discussion by implying that all men lack the ability to appreciate women’s safety issues.

Also the fact that mud sticks when allegations of harassment are raised, but disproven. I worked many years ago where a female superior, with a history of harassment complaints was allowed to continue on with her career, while men and women who made the complaints were moved on. I’m talking physical attacks as well as verbal harassment. This is not made up

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