Time to Get Angry: Making Sexual Harassment Everyone’s Business

23 Oct 2019

Jenny Gray traces the origins of Not in My Workplace – a pioneering collective of executives and public sector leaders committed to stamping out sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.

Dr Jenny Gray addresses the Melbourne launch of Not in My Workplace at the Old Treasury Building in August 2018.

Dr Jenny Gray addresses the Melbourne launch of Not in My Workplace at the Old Treasury Building in August 2018.

Imagine that you or one of your colleagues has been exposed to an incident of grave danger at work. The danger is frightening and ever-present; it’s undoubtedly undermining your confidence and ability to work, and ultimately could prevent you from doing your job entirely.

How would we react to such an incident in Victoria’s public service? I have no doubt that, at the very least, we’d demand action to remove the threat. We’d expect barriers and signs to isolate the danger, we would educate our staff, and we’d spend time and money removing or minimising the danger.

But that’s not always the case when it comes to sexual harassment. In fact, our reaction often falls woefully short – even of these basic expectations.

Every year in Victoria, more than 175,000 employees will experience some form of sexual harassment, ranging from inappropriate comments and jokes to rape or attempted rape. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, 59% of employees experiencing sexual harassment will suffer long-term consequences, including stress, anxiety and negative mental health outcomes.[1] The costs of poor mental health in a workplace are well documented in terms of absenteeism and loss of productivity. But the hidden costs, to a person’s security and self-esteem, can be far more devastating.

A deficit of leadership

While high-profile cases of sexual harassment and abuse often feature in the media and public court proceedings, women and men continue to be subject to intolerable practices in their workplaces every day. From seemingly harmless comments to criminal activity, such practices reveal a deficit of leadership and honest discussion on what constitutes acceptable behaviour.

When poor behaviour is ignored – or, worse, practised – by leading politicians and popular celebrities, the pressure on everyday people escalates. Encouragingly, however, this also works in reverse. When leaders demonstrate positive values and proactive behaviours, their workplace cultures can quickly improve.

In 2017, a number of high-profile cases led to the creation of the #MeToo movement and suddenly our media was filled with stories of high-profile people accused of sexual harassment. I found myself reflecting a deep anger that in 2017 women and men are still subject to ongoing unpleasant and corrosive sexual harassment in the workplace. Perhaps I have been shielded for the last couple of decades; but more likely, I have been blind to ongoing practices.

While I have never considered myself a victim of sexual predation or harassment, throughout my career I’ve been aware of its prevalence and the damage that results. 

In my first leadership role, one of my staff was a victim of harassment. Every few weeks she was visited by a senior traffic officer to discuss traffic statistics. We used to tease her that her boyfriend had arrived, as he clearly liked to seek out her company. After one such visit, however, she pulled me aside in tears and explained that he would come into her office and close the door, then tell her how he wanted to have sexual relations with her, that he could change her preference for women, and other appalling things. She was terrified that his behaviour was escalating the more that she said “No”.

My colleague was adamant that she did not want to report the officer; she just wanted the behaviour to stop. With what I now reflect as great courage, we two very young women confronted the senior officer. We explained that his behaviour was unacceptable, that I was aware, and that if it continued I would escalate the complaint to senior management. For the next couple of months I sat in on the meetings, and very soon he changed jobs. I wonder now if, in protecting my colleague, we just shifted the problem to another victim. 

Second-class citizens

I can recount many and varied ways in which I have experienced sexual discrimination in the workplace over my career, from being turned down for promotions “because you’ll get pregnant and take time off” to being asked to leave the golf club lounge at 5pm when it becomes a male-only bar. I have seen payroll information showing that I earn less than my male colleagues, although my results and performance are significantly higher. I have watched colleagues and leaders engage in workplace affairs.

However, I also know that I’ve been one of the lucky ones. Being female in a male-dominated environment has allowed me to stand out, to be identified for opportunities and to move into senior leadership. My strong networking skills have secured mentors and colleagues who’ve supported me and ensured I am not isolated. I have always enjoyed the outrage of male colleagues when confronted with the injustice that women and minorities experience regularly. To their credit, most of them take action to address the problems once they become visible.

The aim of Not in My Workplace is to allow people in a position to make change to see the danger of sexual harassment in their workplace and to encourage them to be angry and outraged.

I recently saw data on the gender pay gap in a large Melbourne-based organisation, which indicated a 16% gap between men and women doing the same work. The leadership indicated that they are pleased to see that the gap has closed by 0.5% in the last year. At this rate, it will take 32 years to reach parity! We should all be outraged.

Over my career, I have learned behaviours to minimise my risk of harm from sexual harassment. I pay attention to those showing predatory behaviours and avoid them, I leave work events before the heavy drinking starts, I don’t drink more than one glass of wine at any work event, and I actively develop strong and supportive networks. I have found ways of using humour to diffuse difficult situations and advocate the use of clear language and signals.

I like to think that I am aware of the dangers of sexual harassment at work and that I have taken steps to secure the safety of my colleagues and staff from sexual harassment. Yet in my own organisation, we have handled two cases of sexual harassment in the past 12 months. In both cases, the incidents would be classified as inappropriate comments and unwelcome attention – yet the damage to the victims has been significant. Both perpetrators have lost their jobs.

I reflect that all leaders need constant vigilance in tackling cultures that allow sexual comments and teasing, which might result in great harm to all the staff involved. We are addressing the culture through clear policy, information sharing and training. 

The People Matters Survey of the culture in the public service shows that we are not unique. At least 16% of public servants indicate that they have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the past 12 months. I cannot think of another risk in the workplace that touches so many employees and has the potential for significant and ongoing harm. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace operates with similar culture and systemic failures as occupational health and safety. It is plausible that the same interventions and accountability for leaders will deliver improvements in the workplace environment and reduce incidents of sexual harassment. We need to address the levers and enabling environments that create the conditions for sexual harassment – including gender inequality, lack of diversity in leadership, and high levels of family violence.

Not in My Workplace is an association of leaders committed to eliminating sexual harassment in our workplaces. We are calling on all boards and leadership teams to take sexual harassment in your organisation seriously, to put it on the risk register, and to monitor cultural indicators such as the gender pay gap and diversity in leadership. Once the problem is visible, we will all be empowered and compelled to act. 

What will you do to protect the people you work with?


Dr Jenny Gray is the CEO of Zoos Victoria, a former IPAA Victoria Board member, and the founding Chair of Not in My Workplace. With a PhD in Ethics from Melbourne University, Jenny is one of a growing group of senior executives committed to eradicating sexual harassment from Australian workplaces.

For more information and resources, visit: https://www.notinmyworkplace.org/

[1] Everyone’s business: Fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, AHRC, 2018: http://genderinstitute.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/docs/2018_docs/AHRC_WORKPLACE_SH_2018.pdf