Commissioner’s Foreword

Australia was once at the forefront of tackling sexual harassment globally.

See Report:

Women’s organisations in Australia began to press for the legal and social recognition of sex discrimination in the early 1970s. This movement built on Australia’s ratification of two key international conventions:

  • the International Labour Organization’s Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention in 1973
    • the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (‘CEDAW’) in 1983.

States including South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria enacted anti-discrimination laws covering the ground of sex in the late 1970s.

In 1984, the Australian Government introduced the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which specifically prohibited sexual harassment at work and established the role I currently occupy, as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner.[1] Since that time, successive Sex Discrimination Commissioners have identified the elimination of workplace sexual harassment as a key priority.

However, over 35 years on, the rate of change has been disappointingly slow. Australia now lags behind other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

Since 2003, the Australian Human Rights Commission has conducted four periodic surveys on the national experience of sexual harassment. Our most recent survey conducted in 2018 showed that sexual harassment in Australian workplaces is widespread and pervasive. One in three people experienced sexual harassment at work in the past five years.[2]

Underpinning this aggregate figure is an equally shocking reflection of the gendered and intersectional nature of workplace sexual harassment. As the 2018 National Survey revealed, almost two in five women (39%) and just over one in four men (26%) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more likely to have experienced workplace sexual harassment than people who are non-Indigenous (53% and 32% respectively).[3]

Sexual harassment is not a women’s issue: it is a societal issue, which every Australian, and every Australian workplace, can contribute to addressing.

Workplace sexual harassment is not inevitable. It is not acceptable. It is preventable.

As Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, I deliver this report with a sense of urgency and hope.

I have been devastated by the experiences of sexual harassment within workplaces I have heard about through this Inquiry, the harms suffered by victims and the cost to the economy.[4] However, I have also been heartened by the whole-of-community response to the National Inquiry. Australia wants change.

The current legal and regulatory system is simply no longer fit for purpose. In this report, I have recommended a new model that improves the coordination, consistency and clarity between the anti-discrimination, employment and work health and safety legislative schemes.

The new model is evidence-based, victim-focused and framed through a gender and intersectional lens. It is also based on existing legal frameworks to avoid duplication, ambiguity and undue burden on employers.  Importantly, it recognises the complementary and mutually reinforcing nature of the three schemes, while also recognising their distinctive features.

I call on all employers to join me in creating safe, gender-equal and inclusive workplaces, no matter their industry or size. This will require transparency, accountability and leadership. It will also require a shift from the current reactive model, that requires complaints from individuals, to a proactive model, which will require positive actions from employers.

Ultimately, a safe and harassment-free workplace is also a productive workplace.

I want to thank the Australian Government for supporting this ground-breaking and world-first inquiry. I also want to acknowledge the legacy and leadership of the people, especially women’s advocates and women’s organisations, who have fought against sexual harassment from the beginning. This report builds upon and advances your work. Finally, I want to thank the team of dedicated and passionate individuals at the Commission who worked on the Inquiry.

#MeToo, #LetHerSpeak, #TimesUp, #BalanceTonPorc, #NotYourHabibti, #Teknisktfel, #QuellaVoltaChe, #YoTambien and similar movements have ignited a global discussion about sexual harassment and gender inequality.

Victims who have for too long been silenced have found their individual and collective voice.

There is an urgency for change. There is the momentum for reform.

By adopting the multifaceted and whole-of-community response outlined in this report, Australia can reclaim its position as leaders in tackling sexual harassment and provide employers with the guidance they need, and victims the support and redress they deserve.

Kate Jenkins
Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission