BY MIA FREEDMAN
The first time I was sexually harassed at work, I didn’t know what it was. Same with the second and third and fourth times.
It happened when I was working as a waitress in a restaurant after I’d left school. The owner was a loud, charismatic European guy in his 50s with a big family and there were two waitresses, me and another girl.
It began as comments about my appearance – often in his own language which he would helpfully translate. “Beautiful wet girl” he would growl at me sexually as I walked past him throughout the night between the restaurant floor and the kitchen.
It was annoying and off-putting and it made me intensely uncomfortable. Later, it would make me quite scared. But I had no name for it. “He’s a bit of a sleaze” I said to the other waitress one night when we were out of earshot. She nodded and rolled her eyes. She’d been there longer than me but she was on a working visa so she knew her position was more tenuous.
I decided the best approach was to ignore his comments which were growing more full-on with each shift I worked.
He then started brushing up against me in the kitchen – away from the eyes of customers who all thought he was a large and lively legend- after I’d cleared tables. My arms were full so I couldn’t push him away. It happened a couple of times, at which point I quit. I had begun to dread going to work and was starting to feel unsafe.
It never occurred to me to report him or lodge some kind of official complaint. To my 18 year old mind, he was just a sleazy guy being a sleaze and I just had to cop it. It’s not like the restaurant had an HR department.
How times have changed. Sexual harrassment is now widely recognised as a crime. You can’t pinch the bottom of a female (or male) employee or co-worker. You can’t make suggestive comments or sexual propositions.
I’m thrilled that no daughter or niece of mine will have to quit her job because of sexual harassment. Or will she?
The Australian Human Rights Commission describes sexual harassment as” any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.” It is not interaction flirtation or friendship – it is sexual discrimination.
Despite the fact that is has now been outlawed in Australia for over 25 years (can you imagine working conditions before then?) it is still a huge problem, with 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men affected. And equally appalling is the fact that there is still a huge onus on the victim to prove sexual harassment and regardless of gender (as we’ve seen with this week’s allegations by James Ashby against federal MP Peter Slipper – read more about that here), the accuser is often targeted by dirt and slurs on their character.
Too often the victim becomes the accused.
ABC Online reported on a new study that found that complainants are far more likely to leave the company than the alleged perpetrators. A study by the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia examined every formal complaint lodged with anti-discrimination bodies in all states and the Commonwealth in the second half of 2009.
Paula McDonald, one of the report’s authors and an Associate Professor at the Queensland University of Technology says of the perpetrator “Sometimes they receive a formal sanction, sometimes they resign or are dismissed by the organisation, but in this study only 10 per cent of perpetrators resigned or were dismissed compared to 60 per cent of complainants who ended up resigning or who were dismissed as a consequence of victimisation after making a complaint.”
And when asked about the actual victims, Paula says “Potential complainants are very much aware of… the repercussions that might come their way, the negative fallout that often happens when they make a complaint in an organisation or elsewhere. Certainly… those potential detriments or perceived detriments serve to silence a lot of complainants who would otherwise file a formal grievance. “
So how far have we really come?
Have you ever been the victim of sexual harassment at work? Have you reported it? How was it handled?