Australians who experience sexual harassment or assault in the workplace are often encouraged to speak out and report the perpetrator.

Many businesses claim to have a zero tolerance for this type of behaviour, promising to support their employees and bring those responsible to justice.

Unfortunately, for many victims the reality is much more grim.

When Jessica, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, was sexually harassed by her boss she did what every victim is told to do and reported it to her workplace.

Two months later she was terminated.

Jessica told news.com.au the first red flag came on the first day of her new job at a Sydney-based creative company.

To mark International Women's Day, news.com.au is highlighting the personal experiences of women in the workplace and the barriers to equality, safety and opportunity that exist.

 

A woman has spoken out about her horror experience with workplace sexual harassment.
A woman has spoken out about her horror experience with workplace sexual harassment.

"When I first entered my new role in senior management, I recall other staff saying, 'Here comes fresh meat'. I'd never heard that term before so questioned an account director what it meant, to which he replied 'You're new on the scene for your boss'," she recalled.

"A wave of disbelief came over me, as it had a sexual tone, and I recall thinking that couldn't possibly be right.

"I always acted professionally, on time, immaculately dressed, stayed late, brought on extra work to keep the team and the projects running smoothly. I was single, in my early 30s and loved working with others."

'HAND ON HIS CROTCH'

Eventually, Jessica's boss started requiring her to work late nights with him in a smaller building separated from the main office.

During these late nights, when it was just the two of them, Jessica often noticed her boss would stand very close to her as she went about her work.

The incident happened one night when she was working on a computer a few feet away from her boss, who was on the phone.

"He stood behind me, I thought he was looking at my work, and then his left leg lifted up and his foot was on my desk, and his open crotch at my left ear," Jessica said.

"His hand was on his trouser crotch. I froze, then calmly said 'Do you mind removing your foot from my desk'. He did so, and then I packed up and left."

The next morning she reported the incident to the company's CFO, who was a woman, a fact which made Jessica hopeful appropriate action would be taken.

She said she had a "strong suspicion" she was not the first employee to experience this type of behaviour from her boss, a suspicion which Jessica claimed the CFO confirmed.

 

 

At her request, Jessica was moved back to the main building and into the finance department where 11 other staff members worked.

While Jessica felt safer having other staff around, it was clear her boss hadn't taken kindly to her reporting the harassment.

"Months after the move, he verbally abused me in front of the entire floor of staff. The reason why this happened, was because I had booked a sales call during a time he was interstate and with his mistress," she said.

"The entire floor witnessed this, I sat at my desk shaking. And after a great display of abuse towards me, only one other man stood up and told him to calm down in a very gentle tone. My face was white, and I left for the rest of the day."

An alarming number of Australians have experienced sexual harassment at work. Picture: iStock
An alarming number of Australians have experienced sexual harassment at work. Picture: iStock

 

'IT'S EITHER YOU OR HIM'

The harassment and verbal abuse took a physical toll on Jessica, she lost weight, started experiencing headaches and found herself at the doctor weekly.

After every visit her perpetrator would send her flowers and ask if she was OK.

"After the blast of abuse, all of my efforts to keep myself safe, it clearly didn't work as I was privy to his adulterous behaviour and he knew it," Jessica said.

Despite this, Jessica said she never once believed she would be fired as a result of her boss' behaviour

"But after many discussions with my alliance, the female CFO, she couldn't stand up for me anymore," she said.

After months of torment, Jessica was called into a meeting with the second in command, in which she thought she would be able to speak her mind.

"But the five minute meeting was quite literally to the point, 'It's either you or him'," she said.

"I said, 'But I'm the victim here, I'm the one who is being abused for no reason and sexually harassed'. But the second in command was firm and said that the company was built by this man and I was expendable. I was given two weeks' pay and was removed an hour later."

Jessica said her story illustrated the typical signs of a serial and mature perpetrator in the workplace.

"His reputation went before him. He gained my trust praising my work. He then isolated me. He slowly closed the physical gap. And when I resisted, he set me up to fail," she said.

"He ultimately abused me, degrading me in front of others, making me out to be incompetent in my work. And finally, (I was) fired."

AUSTRALIA'S HORRIFYING REALITY

While Jessica's story is horrifying, it certainly isn't unique.

A National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces by the Human Rights Commission, which was released in March 2020, found Australia is lagging behind other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

The survey, which was conducted in 2018, found 33 per cent of people have experienced workplace sexual harassment in the past five years, with women more likely than men to experience this behaviour at work.

Of those harassments, 40 per cent were witnessed by at least one other person. In 69 per cent of cases they did not intervene.

Less than one in five (17 per cent) of people who experienced harassment made a formal complaint. Of those, 19 per cent were labelled a troublemaker, 18 per cent were ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues and 17 per cent resigned.

Patty Kinnersly, CEO of Our Watch, a national leader in the prevention of violence against women and children, said many Australians would be shocked to learn how pervasive workplace sexual harassment is across the country.

Studies have found women experience workplace sexual harassment more than men. Picture: Human Rights Commission.
Studies have found women experience workplace sexual harassment more than men. Picture: Human Rights Commission.

Despite the alarming figures discovered in the Human Rights Commission, it is believed that sexual harassment is still greatly under reported in Australia.

"Victim-survivors may not speak out because they fear they could lose their job, lose their colleagues' respect or be blamed for any abuse that has occurred," Ms Kinnersly told news.com.au.

"We know that often in our society, violence against women is condoned, downplayed or trivialised, or met with victim-blaming responses. This creates a culture where many women understandably do not feel safe or confident to speak out."

The 2017 National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey shows there are some positive signs that community attitudes towards violence against women are shifting, however Ms Kinnersly said there is still a long way to go.

"Many people still have attitudes that undermine gender equality, which we know is crucial to preventing violence. For example, 1 in 7 people do not agree that women are as capable as men in politics or in the workplace, and nearly a quarter see no harm in telling sexist jokes," she said.

"Whilst we are seeing an increasing number of employers implementing sexual harassment policies, the implementation of these policies is often poor, and fails to create the conditions that make it safe for victims to come forward."

 

 

Ms Kinnersly said in order to reduce the rate of sexual harassment, it needs to be stopped before it starts.

The Respect@Work report headed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner includes a recommendation for all employers to be required by law to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation.

"We strongly support this recommendation, which would bring Australian federal law into line with other jurisdictions, such as Victoria and the UK," Ms Kinnersly said.

"Preventing sexual harassment in workplaces is work that must be led from the top. Employers and workplace leadership need to champion and model equal and respectful behaviour and establish a workplace culture where violence, harassment and inequality are not tolerated, and where there is equality and respect for all employees, regardless of gender, age, sexuality or background.

"Everybody should feel safe going to work, and that fact that so many do not is unacceptable."

 

 

Originally published as Vile act after worker reported harassment


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