'The mass silencing of women.' The real-world impact of allegations made at Parliament house.

Content warning: This story includes descriptions of sexual assault that may be distressing to some readers.

Last week, Diversity Council Australia's CEO Lisa Annese was in Canberra when a highly publicised allegation was made in the Senate.

She tells Mamamia she had an immediate visceral response.

In the Senate, Independent Senator Lidia Thorpe used parliamentary privilege to accuse a Liberal Senator of sexual assault. Following the event, Senator Thorpe withdrew the accusation on Wednesday night as part of Senate standing orders. On Thursday, she released a full statement while in the Senate, crying as she read it out loud.

The Senator at the centre of the allegations is no longer sitting in the Liberal party room and has resigned from the Liberal party. He has vehemently denied the allegations made against him by Senator Thorpe, and the additional allegations that have since arisen. 

For Lisa Annese, this news story speaks to a wider issue in workplaces across Australia. And she believes it's a news story that has a real-world impact for people outside of Parliament. 

"Separate to this case [and allegation], sexual harassment is still rife in Australian workplaces. I mean, the Jenkin's report and research done by the Human Rights Commission shows that it's widespread - almost 85 per cent of women experience workplace sexual harassment in the course of their working life," she says.

Watch: What Lidia Thorpe said in the Senate. Post continues below. 

Video via ABC/Parliament. 

"The workplace is sometimes a reflection of what's happening more broadly in our communities. It's exhausting. Women are still feeling re-traumatised and workplaces have a long way to go."

Whenever Karen Iles hears a woman's story of workplace sexual harassment, she isn't surprised.

Karen is the Founder and Principal Solicitor at Violet Co Legal & Consulting - a female-led, Indigenous-led, social enterprise. She is also a victim-survivor. A part of her role is supporting businesses, organisations and individuals with issues of sexual harassment, sexual assault and employment law.

With this in mind, she has seen firsthand the impact workplace sexual harassment can have on victim-survivors. And she has also witnessed the barriers victim-survivors often have to face. 

"A recent survey from ANROWS found that four out of ten Australians do not believe a woman's complaint of sexual assault/harassment. I think if you asked the same question of how many Australians do not believe reports of sexual violence from an Aboriginal woman, sex workers, those with a disability or any kind of intersectionality - the answer would potentially be more than four out of ten," Karen says to Mamamia

"The very act of workplace sexual harassment is an act of power and control. It's all about stripping someone of their agency, their self confidence and self belief. Having a compliance process that acknowledges this, while also being trauma-informed to the woman telling her story is crucial."


What employers can do about workplace sexual harassment.

The first point of focus should be on prevention, Lisa Annese says.

"One of the outcomes from the Respect@Work Report is that employers will need to demonstrate that they are taking a preventative approach regarding workplace health and safety. Employers also have to focus on gender equality, workplace culture, leadership and accountability. We need to set the tone from the top.

"You also need to educate and communicate your expectations for all staff and you need to do that regularly," she says.

When it comes to responding to allegations of workplace sexual harassment or assault, Lisa explains there is a due process employers should follow.

"You can't substantiate an allegation until you've been through an investigation. But you can still take a victim-centric and trauma-informed approach that doesn't do more harm than what has already [allegedly] been done."

Focusing on a trauma-informed model is something Karen Iles champions as well.

"A lot of the people I've worked with, their workplace has told the victim-survivor to make a report with police, and then the workplace does nothing in the meantime. But putting one's head in the sand isn't the answer," Karen says.

"They've got a duty of care to prevent workplace sexual harassment, and they certainly have a duty to respond to it. There is also nuance in how the investigation is handled, based on what the victim-survivor feels is right."

Lisa Annese and Karen Iles. Image: Supplied.


Last week, Lisa happened to be in Canberra. While there, she noted that the mood among women in Parliament and Federal Government positions was a feeling of disillusionment. 

But she also remains determined to change the wider narrative. 

"In Canberra we launched the Women for Election Parliamentary Friends Group. It's a non-partisan group committed to supporting women running for office, whether that's local, state or federal, and championing gender equality at all levels of government," she says.

As Diversity Council Australia's CEO, and sitting on the Federal Government's Respect@Work Council, Lisa has seen firsthand how Parliament operates.


"I think it's the same as women everywhere. They feel really disappointed with how politicised allegations of harassment are. I call it the mass silencing of women.

Despite the feelings of frustration - which are totally valid - Lisa wants to keep the conversation going.

"Everyone deserves the right to go to work and be safe. There's still a lot of work to do. But I started working in this space at a time when nobody cared about the issue. So seeing a shift is encouraging. There is a sisterhood, and a brotherhood to some extent, full of people who are interested and committed to creating change."

For Karen, she feels equally passionate about the work she does. 

"In the early stages of my career, I supported a woman who was working in a blue collar industry who had experienced quite severe workplace sexual harassment. Her male manager was held to account and took responsibility. That helped her heal," Karen says.

"She has since been going from strength to strength, managed to regain her confidence and she is now one of the top in her field in Western Australia. That's a beautiful thing. It's stories like hers that always stick out in my mind."

If this has raised 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. 13Yarn is also available for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in need of support.

Feature Image: Canva/Mamamia.