"A hashtag won't help us stop sexual harassment. But here are five real ways we can."

I can’t help but wonder how many Harvey Weinsteins we have right here right now, in Australia, in positions of power, watching the news unfold.

I can’t help but wonder what they are thinking. Whether it’s: “Look at this predator, abusing innocent women like that, what a pig!” Or is it, “Poor bastard he got caught,” – and sadly, I think it’s the latter.

Every time a new abuser or attacker is cast into the public spotlight, we are all outraged. It dominates the news. Our dinner table conversations, our social catch-ups, lunchrooms, Twitter – it’s all we talk about.

We create hashtags, say we’ve had enough of it, sometimes we hold rallies, demand change, undertake investigations, and media commentators write pieces – exactly like I am writing now.

But then something rather odd happens. We almost seem to just move on.

Something else breaks in the news and we move on from thinking about it. We momentarily forget once again, until the next Harvey Weinstein ends up on the television three months later. Once again accused of heinous acts toward women, and thus the cycle repeats itself.

We’re again outraged, incensed over this guy’s disrespect for women. But have we ever done anything to stop it? I mean, we talk about it, but do we take enough affirmative action to really address the problem? Or are we just “outraged”?

Sexual assault is shocking, but hearing of it should no longer be a shock. It’s rife in our workplaces, every single day. The issue has plagued us for centuries, but we still can’t seem to solve it.

It starts with people in positions of power who prey on the innocent women who work in their organisations. They prey on the fact that they need their job, need a pay check, need the project or the reference on their resume. We’ve seen the issue burst into the Australian news recently with allegations of sexual harassment at our own Channel 7. We know what’s happened in the past – in so many workplaces I tire to mention them all.

And yet we hear about Harvey Weinstein and the same debate ensues. With the Weinstein case, the media have known about it for years, but his films propped up the media industry. People in power were willing to protect him and this is a pattern we see emerge time and time again. Statistics in Australia prove that sexual assault and abuse is still rife. But very few people want to talk about it or come forward.

"When someone comes forward, there is overwhelming support provided in the community for other women." Image: Getty

There are always several positives that do spring from someone coming forward. Firstly, there is often support provided in the community. Of course, this is good to see and shows that at a community level, people are outraged and they do want it to stop. But that’s stating the obvious, isn’t it?

But what’s interesting is that at the same time these women are receiving support at a community level, they are often subjected to hostility from others in powerful positons. The people at the victim’s level ‘get it’, but those in positions of power ‘reject it’. Many of them then come out against the women and this has a disastrous impact on the psyche of those thousands of other women who are sitting at home already too scared to come forward.

As a lawyer who has worked in this area for almost 20 years, what’s interesting is that we aren’t seeing the commensurate amount of legal cases. The statistics show that women are being abused and assaulted more than ever before, but they’re not seeking legal remedy. I think there is still a lot of fear that women who do come forward will be shunned, bullied, and dragged through the mud publicly.

Many wrongly feel shame and as if they might have somehow contributed to ‘allowing it to happen’. Those people in positions of power prey on this insecurity. They know that their own voice is often louder, their contacts deeper. Their ability to do greater damage is what gives them the confidence to do it again. Repeatedly.


LISTEN: Mia Freedman, Rachel Corbett and Jessie Stephens explain everything you need to know about Harvey Weinstein (post continues after audio...)

So, what do we have to do to beat this vicious cycle of sexual harassment and assault on our own soil?

I think there’s a few things that we need to focus on which we aren’t doing to the best of our current abilities. Here are five, which I think would be a step in the right direction:

1. Set up a new independent advocacy body - now

While we have the Australian Human Rights Commission, they have their hands full dealing with a wide range of other issues such as asylum seekers and refugees, anti-racism campaigns, discrimination in the LGBTI community, and the list goes on.

I think they do a good job with the resources they have available to them, but one body cannot address so many widespread issues all at once. We need an independent advocacy body established who are solely focused on the issue of sexual assault and abuse in Australia. We can’t afford not to, the problem is getting worse, it is systemic and we need to really focus on this issue of abuse of power.

2. Build mandatory sexual assault and abuse intervention programs into school curriculum – earlier

I’m not talking about social engineering here. I’m talking about educating youth in relation to what the law is and to eradicate ignorance so that offenders can’t rely on “it was just a joke” or “I thought she wanted it (even though she was passed out on the bed)”. The issue of sexual assault and abuse of women is so ingrained in our institutions and workplaces that it will take a lot of work to reform the current mindset.

We need to start earlier and we need to start teaching kids as early as 15 years old, not only what sexual assault means – but what impacts it has. Legal and social. We need to get through to the kids who hold the positions of power of tomorrow. It is only by youth education that I believe we will really start to turn the problem around.

3. Redesign the role of and upskill HR departments

Most of us would agree that the HR department in many organisations is overworked and predominantly therefore forced to focus on interviewing candidates, conducting annual reviews, negotiating pay increases, managing leave, pay, position descriptions, salary sacrificing. But how many HR departments are really focused on mitigating sexual assault and harassment in their workplaces?

The area falls somewhere within a grey zone between HR and workplace health and safety. Ample investment needs to be made in upskilling HR teams to proactively look for signs that issues of a sexual nature may be present in the workplace. Better still, they need to be taught how to create a workplace culture where it does not exist in the first place.


4. Empower the ethical bystanders

Many instances of sexual harassment and assault are taking place in front of other people. Whether that’s at work, at a sporting match or at a party, there’s often someone else who witnesses the incident. Currently, it’s hard to get through to those innocent bystanders and it’s hard to encourage them to speak up. Many times, they may be scared for their own job, or their own reputation, or their own safety – and this is a serious concern.

But as a society we must be constantly reticent of what we see and hear around us and if something feels ‘off’ we need to seek help. We all need to do our bit and this could be privately approaching HR with something we saw, it could be having a quiet word with the security guard at the sporting venue, or it could even be an anonymous phone call to the police. Many times, it might just be the showing of support to that person who was treated badly, that says to them ‘what happened to me was not OK and I do not have to stand for it’.

5. Remove the stigma around ‘bringing a legal claim’

We need to stand behind people who decide to call out bad behaviour and we need to support those who are courageous enough to seek justice. Often people feel embarrassed that they are bringing a legal claim or they are scared about the repercussions.

I can’t help but wonder that if we did employ more proactive measures of dealing with the issue, that we would see less of them. I think we’ve hit a point as a society, where simply being outraged, is no longer enough. It is only by taking proactive steps and making tangible improvements to the way we operate as a society, that we have any chance of turning this around. Because we aren’t just dealing with one Harvey Weinstein. Where there is power there will be a Harvey working out how to exploit. They exist. Every day. And it’s going to take more than a hashtag to turn this around.

Adair Donaldson is an ambassador of the Fullstop Foundation and the director of Donaldson Law who help survivors of sexual abuse to seek justice and bring about institutional change. Adair has represented hundreds of survivors subjected to sexual assault and abuse within institutions and workplaces around Australia. After twenty years’ experience in the law, Adair founded Donaldson Law to focus on a non-adversarial approach to achieving holistic legal solutions for his clients following a growing realisation that aggressive litigation was not serving his clients best.