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Violence against women is a work issue too

Opinion

Employers need to accept that the lines between home and work life cannot always be neatly drawn – and that they can play a major role in actively supporting women experiencing family violence, writes Jane Pickering.

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Violence against women is continuing at an alarming rate in Australia. Thankfully, the issue is receiving more attention than ever before through awareness and education campaigns like those run by White Ribbon and Our Watch.

On average, one woman a week is killed by a current or former partner. In addition, more than one in three women have experienced physical violence by someone they know at some time in their lives. A study by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2018 also found 85 per cent of women have been sexually harassed. Although men are also affected, it’s overwhelmingly women who the victims.

A $22 billion issue for workplaces

Unfortunately, too many people think this shouldn’t be the concern of business owners, but with one in four women affected by domestic violence, it is highly likely that women who are experiencing these problems work in your company. Domestic violence does not discriminate. It could be happening to anyone, no matter what their background or employment status.

Without the right support, these women will experience ill health, lower productivity and poor work performance. In fact, domestic violence is estimated to cost the Australian economy more than $22 billion each year. Being discriminated against at work because there are ‘things going on at home’ can cause a woman to lose her job and to spiral into the hopeless cycle of poverty and homelessness – often with her children following. Domestic and family violence is now the leading cause of homelessness for women in Australia.

Employers can help prevent this.

Consider the scenario where a woman facing domestic violence finds comfort at work away from her attacker – a place where she can safely talk with trained people in the office who will listen and assist her to find the support she needs. In this situation, she would be able to take paid leave and access important services to help her and her children stay safe.

Is this your organisation? If not, what’s stopping you taking a step further? I urge every business owner or chief executive to talk to staff, so everyone understands your business provides support and assistance to victims and has no tolerance for gender-based violence.

Changing the culture

At Eldercare we’ve given a lot of thought to domestic violence prevention because we have a very high proportion of female employees.

In 2018, we committed to becoming an accredited White Ribbon organisation – one of only a few private organisations in South Australia to do so. It was a long process, but we remained focused because we felt it was important to lead the way on changing the conversations around violence and calling out behaviours that support unhealthy cultural stereotypes, and that demean either men or women.

We have an opportunity to change the conversations around violence and how we view women. We need to create workplace environments where women can talk confidentially about the deeply personal impacts of violence without being judged and we must find ways to support women experiencing violence.

Mandatory training of staff was vital. We also reviewed relevant policies and procedures and built in-house capacity to develop individualised risk assessments and safety plans for employees who may be experiencing violence. I’m confident that Eldercare staff are now well-equipped to support any colleague who may need help.

We also went further and established a Staff Emergency Relief Fund into which employees are encouraged to make voluntary donations. Money raised through the fund is used to help pay for short-term accommodation, private medical treatment and other items that may be needed in an emergency.

To us, this isn’t someone else’s problem: it’s part of our social responsibility.

Gender equity should be part of the solution

Domestic violence figures, of course, won’t change much until we address how we view women more broadly throughout our society. Workplaces play a role in this by perpetuating often unconscious gender bias in recruitment, promotion and policy-making. This is an important message I tell others in my role as a member of the South Australian Chiefs for Gender Equity.

There is a distinct lack of women in visible leadership roles. More women than men hold a university degree, yet men still earn more than women, on average, in nearly every industry. Women still spend more than twice the number of hours doing unpaid care work compared to men. The low ratio of women in senior positions in Australian politics, sports and media is also not acceptable.

We have a chance to fix this. Demand a zero tolerance of sexist language, jokes and demeaning comments. Ask staff to call this behaviour out and then start looking at addressing other gender equity issues in the workplace in a systematic manner.

This may be a challenge in some industries, but disrespect of women is a fundamental problem that needs to change right now. Workplaces must be part of the solution. If we do nothing, the epidemic of violence will continue. That’s something I simply refuse to accept.

Jane Pickering is a member of the South Australian Chiefs for Gender Equity group and the chief executive of Eldercare.

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