Blog

The Weinstein effect and sexual harassment in the Australian workplace

Emily Shoemark

22 May 2018

Topics

  • Employment Law

Is Harvey Weinstein an anomaly or the tip of the iceberg? Australia workplace leaders considered this at the HR masterclasses run throughout Australian capital cities in March 2018. In Canberra, Emily Shoemark tackled the topic. Here, Emily considers the effect of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein in the context of Australian workplaces and explains how Australia’s stats stack up on sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature which makes a person feel offended, humiliated and/or intimidated where that reaction is reasonable in the circumstances. Sexual harassment is unlawful under the Sex Discrimination Act.

The Weinstein Effect and sexual harassment

The allegations against Harvey Weinstein about sexual harassment, sexual abuse and the ‘culture of complicity’ which prevented disclosure until now has triggered a worldwide movement encouraging women, and men, to speak about inappropriate conduct. This will have implications in the employment relations landscape as a shift in culture, for the better, will see employers and Human Resources (HR) staff deal with more complaints as victims begin to increasingly report instances of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Allegations of widespread sexual harassment by Weinstein gave rise to the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, which encouraged people that had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment to take a stance against it.

Australian statistics

The Australian Human Rights Commission has reported that 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and 1 in 10 people have witnessed it. Nearly half of those who have been sexually harassed report that it has also happened to someone else in the same workplace. Almost one in five complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission relate to sexual harassment and are subsequently dealt with under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

These statistics produced by the Australian Human Rights Commission are not only damning but remind us of the grave and serious nature of the issue.

Australian culture and attitudes to sexual harassment

One difficulty that arises in Australia is different perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment. There is a lack of awareness that whether the complainant feels harassed is important – not whether the alleged harasser thinks that their conduct is inappropriate.

For managers in organisations, and in particular multi-cultural workplaces, these differences in cultures and perceptions are difficult to manage in ensuring that complaints are taken seriously, but also that the premise of innocent until proven guilty is maintained.

A recent survey done by two Perth universities has revealed that Australian women are far less likely to consider wolf-whistling and being ‘hit on’ as unacceptable. The study, which polled 1734 women from 12 countries, found that just 26% of Australians surveyed believed that it was inappropriate for a man to proposition them about sex at a social event. Comparatively, 100% of Egyptian women surveyed found it was unacceptable, with 99% percent of Indonesian women, 97% of Japanese women and 88% of Portuguese women finding the same.

Recent awards of damages

In recent years the shift in society’s attitude towards sexual harassment has been reflected in case law. Recent awards of damages have reflected this ‘no tolerance’ attitude. In the past, damages awarded in sexual harassment claims have generally been in the range of $10,000 to $30,000. However, in recent years there has been a trend of damages upwards of $100,000.

The potential impact for employers, and in particular those in charge of HR, is an increase in complaints, and ensuring that these are dealt with properly while maintaining the premise of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ during investigations.

How can Snedden Hall & Gallop Lawyers help you?

As an employer, if you have any concerns about ‘the Weinstein Effect’ and sexual harassment in your workplace contact Snedden Hall & Gallop today on (02) 6285 8000 or by email here. You can find out more about our Employment Law team.


Emily thanks Senior Law Clerk, Gene Schirripa, for his contribution to this blog.