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Sex Discrimination Commissioner sees opportunity in SA's "huge appetite for change"

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Adelaide could become a testing ground for new approaches aimed at tackling workplace sexual harassment, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner says.

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Commissioner Kate Jenkins will head to Adelaide on Tuesday to speak with sexual harassment victims, unions, lawyers and employment groups as part of her national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment.

The inquiry follows last month’s release of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s fourth national workplace sexual harassment survey, which found one in three Australians had experienced sexual harassment at work in last five years.

Ahead of her Adelaide consultation, Jenkins told InDaily the city’s leadership on social justice issues meant it had “huge appetite for change”.

“There is some potential that Adelaide can start to do things a bit differently,” Jenkins said.

“From previous experiences in Adelaide I have been greeted with people who are very keen to be leading on issues that involve social justice and equality.

“It’s a major city but it’s not the size of Sydney and Melbourne, so it creates an opportunity to try some things out that might be useful more broadly.”

Jenkins said she was interested to explore how South Australian universities and SA Police had responded to reports of sexual harassment.

She also said she would spend time speaking to people across the state’s industries to gauge how different sectors handled sexual harassment complaints.

The national workplace sexual harassment survey found those working in information, media and telecommunications industries reported drastically higher rates of harassment compared to the national average, with 81 per cent of employees experiencing harassment at work.

Employees in the arts and recreation services sector were the second most likely group to experience workplace sexual harassment, with 49 per cent reporting unwelcome behaviour.

Jenkins, who has already held consultations in Hobart, Geraldton and Perth, said what she had heard during the consultations so far had matched the survey’s results.

“The sorts of things I’m hearing is how common sexual harassment is, particularly in male-dominated industries like mining and construction,” she said.

“I’m also hearing stories of when people do raise complaints they are finding the process either within the employer or within the legal processes really brutal (and) really hard work.

“They take a long time and they often don’t deliver a sense of justice or even kindness to the people complaining.”

The difficulty of reporting harassment, Jenkins said, has been magnified by the emergence of the #MeToo movement, which has seen an groundswell of women speak out against sexual harassment in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein court case in the US.

Jenkins, who was an equal opportunity lawyer for more than 25 years, said this new wave of attention had broken ground in the fight against sexual harassment.

“Certainly in the consultations some women have said that they feel much more empowered because of the #MeToo movement to speak up and some of them have said that that’s been good, but others said it was actually a really bad process.

“They’ve said organisations were not equipped to deal with their complaint, they’ve responded really defensively, their processes weren’t ready.

“With the spotlight, people are more aware of their rights and contacting us with more queries and making more complaints. That’s consistent across the country, but there are still relatively low numbers.”

Jenkins said the inquiry would be looking to develop new strategies for employers to better handle the sexual harassment complaints process and to reduce the incidence of harassment more broadly across Australia.

She said while the national inquiry’s focus was not to handle individual complaints, she encouraged women to report harassment to the Human Rights Commission and South Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commission.

“I’m not using the national inquiry to say, ‘you must come forward to complain’ because one of the most consistent messages we get is actually people saying they didn’t have a good experience when they did complain,” she said.

“But it is really important that people understand their rights and so as we go around we are making sure that people know that they can go separately to the Human Rights Commission and to the local equal opportunity just to understand the different options available to them.”

People can register for the Adelaide consultation by clicking here.

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