opinion

The stories of workplace sexual assault and harassment that will never make the front page.

Warning: This post deals with sexual assault and may be triggering for some people. 

What's unfolding right now in the most powerful workplace in our country is not unique.

This month, the Federal Government is grappling with allegations of a violent sexual crime occurring within the walls of Parliament House.

Since Brittany Higgins was brave enough to tell her story to the media, three more women have come forward with allegations of harassment and assault by the same man - a former Liberal staffer.

Watch: Scott Morrison on Brittany Higgins' allegations.


Video via ABC.

In recent years we've seen some of the biggest names in film, politics, music and radio making headlines over allegations of sexual assault and harassment against women in their workplace.

But there are so many women's stories that aren't being told. The doctors, construction workers, chefs, accountants, teachers, hairdressers, real estate agents, engineers and hospitality staff, who experience assault and harassment at the hands of perpetrators who aren't high profile or famous.

If the story is horrific enough, we might hear about it. But if we heard about every case of workplace harassment in Australia - our newspapers would report nothing else. Because it's happening in every industry, in every location and at every level, as confirmed by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in 2020.

According to a 2018 survey by the HRC, almost two in five women (39 per cent) and just over one in four men (26 per cent) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years.  

Sexual harassment in the workplace is defined by the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 as everything from staring, leering, suggestive comments and a request for sexual favours - to the emailing of rude jokes, intrusive questions about your personal life or the displaying of sexual screen savers. More serious types of sexual harassment - like sexual assault, indecent exposure, or stalking - are also offences under criminal law.

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But it's not just the incident or incidents that are traumatic. It's what happens next.

Brittany Higgins reported that she was raped. Now her former workplace is being accused of not listening. Image: Mamamia 

Amanda worked in a pizza shop when she was 19 while studying at university. It was owned by a husband and wife team, but she mainly worked with the man who was in his early 50s. 

"My boss would frequently ask for 'cuddles' and when I would refuse he become angry with me. He groped my breasts several times, he would try to put his hand down my skirt from the waistband and would constantly make comments about me being frigid. On the day I walked out he kept asking for cuddles and I refused him. In the end, he grabbed my arm and pulled me into him and in the process put his hand down my skirt and under my underwear," she told Mamamia.

After quitting on the spot, Amanda was told by her abuser: "We were going to sack you anyway and don’t bother reporting anything because no one is going to listen to a sl*t like you, I’ll make your life a misery if you take this further."

She contacted the shopping centre management anyway but "it was insinuated that I had let it drag on and it was my fault". 

Carrie had a similar experience in the hospitality industry, with a boss sliding his hand down the back of her pants onto her bum while she was serving a customer. It happened multiple times.

"The bench was so high that the customer couldn't see anything, and he knew I wouldn't say anything because I was shy, young and uncomfortable and I completely froze. I needed the money so I stayed. He did this a few times and I found out that he had been doing it to the other girls too. I felt like there was no one I could talk to or escalate it to because he was the manager and he would just fire me," she told Mamamia.

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It wasn't until she was older that Carrie even realised what she experienced was sexual assault.

"In school, you are taught that being penetrated (with a penis) without your consent is rape, but there is so much more to sexual assault. I thought I wouldn't be taken seriously if I went to the police and said 'I was groped under my pants.'"

This is happening in every single industry in the country. Image: Getty.

This concept of sexual harassment not being 'serious enough' to report is all too common.

As Bec explains, "I didn't report him because he never did anything. But it just made me really uncomfortable and embarrassed."

Bec's finance director was married with kids. But it didn't stop him from constantly coming into her office, emailing her, and finding her mobile number on a call sheet and texting her out of hours.

"Senior management noticed but didn’t ask if I was fine or do anything. It was just treated as gossip. [Once] they saw him through the glass partition [in my office] and one of the senior managers said to everyone in the meeting 'he’s really got a crush on her.'"

Even when it's slightly more blatant, like in Emmeline's sales office where the all-male leadership team would tell her to "consider wearing a shorter skirt to get a promotion" or tell female colleagues they had "blow job lips," she didn't even consider reporting the comments. 

"It seemed just like an extension of school, except the men were 20 years older," she told Mamamia. "It was my first job and I didn't know what wasn't acceptable."

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Read more: A lawyer explains what to do if you're sexually harassed at work, but your employer isn't listening.

As these women will tell you, it doesn't need to be assault to be traumatic and damaging. Sexual harassment of every shade is leaving women and men right around the country devastated. 

As Paloma Cole, an associate in the employment law team at Maurice Blackburn told Mamamia, she often sees the victim pushed out of a workplace while the perpetrator stays on, and is sometimes even rewarded.

We live in a world where sexual harassment and assault is happening every single day in our schools, our homes and our workplaces. But the mechanisms in place to help victims often only compound the trauma experienced.

Emma was working at a popular museum when she was sexually harassed by a colleague. When she told the HR department, she was told, "Don't you know his wife works here?" and "Oh, he's never been like that to me? I must not be good looking enough."

"So I basically just left it," she said. "I just felt humiliated by their response. I guess it made me mistrust HR departments a bit. My first instinct would always be to report an incident, but in this case, it really wasn't worth it, which was pretty sad."

In Canberra right now we're watching a vicious tug-of-war as our Liberal politicians try to defend the actions they took - or more importantly, allegedly didn't take - after Brittany Higgins reported that she had been raped by a colleague. 

Higgins says she was pushed to choose between reporting to police and keeping her job and was made to have a formal employment meeting about the incident in the same room that the alleged rape occurred. Even Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing allegations he knew about the alleged rape and did nothing to escalate the incident.

What's unfolding right now in the most powerful workplace in our country is not unique. Image: Getty.

If the most serious incident of sexual assault in the workplace - an alleged rape - is handled like this by the highest office in Australia, what can we expect within the 2,422,404 other workplaces that make up our country?

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins lead a national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace in 2020, and wrote at its conclusion, "The rate of change has been disappointingly slow. Australia now lags behind other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment."

Terrifyingly, the allegations facing Parliament House are just the very tip of a horrific iceberg. 

There are plenty more stories that aren't making headlines. 

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of victims.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Feature image: Getty.