Shake It Off


In light of the widespread workplace discrimination within the AFP we take a look at what workplaces can do to stamp out discrimination in organisations.

For ten years now, I have targeted my efforts to addressing the oppression of women in our workplaces. And so you’d think that by now, my reactions to discrimination, bullying and harassment, both personal and institutional, would be somewhat desensitised. In reality though, that is far from the truth. When the Australian Federal Police chief, Andrew Colvin, shared a report this week on the findings of a 6 month independent cultural audit by former sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, into the AFP, my instant thoughts went to the individuals – women and men – who had been subjected to what is not just inappropriate behaviour, but illegal.

And there is good reason it is outlawed. The current Beyond Blue campaign educating people about the impact of racism is perhaps the best way to explain to anyone why you can’t just shake off behaviour that constitutes discrimination, bullying or harassment.

The AFP review revealed:

  • 46 per cent of women and 20 per cent of men reported having been sexually harassed within the past five years.
  • 62 per cent of men and 66 per cent of women reported they had been bullied in the past five years.
  • Nearly half of respondents (46 per cent of women and 42 per cent of men) feel their career is impacted by their family/caring responsibilities.

Of course, the findings should not really come as a surprise. Over the past 4 years a number of other reports have released similar findings, revealing  cultures of entrenched discrimination, harassment and bullying in direct contravention to the values and missions of the industries charged with the protection, care and promotion of justice. This includes:

  • The Working without fear: Results of the Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey revealed that just over one in five people aged 15 years and older has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace based on the legal and behavioural definitions of sexual harassment;
  • The Supporting Working Parents Report revealed one in two women experienced pregnancy related discrimination either while pregnant, on maternity leave or on return to work;
  • The Expert Advisory Group Report to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons found 71% of hospitals reported discrimination, bullying or sexual harassment in their hospital in the last five years, with bullying the most frequently reported issue;
  • The Law Council Australia National Attrition and Re-engagement Study found that one in two women reported experiencing discrimination due to their gender, and one in four has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

In each investigation, women and men spoke of the devastating impacts discrimination, bullying and harassment can have on a person’s physical and mental health, on their economic security and on their family. Yet it would seem there remains an unwillingness by leaders to believe without a report of their own, that such unwelcome behaviours are prevalent in their own industry.

So what’s the solution?

Fortunately, there are solutions, and change does not need to be as slow as many believe. Here is our advice:

  1. Leaders must publicly acknowledge and understand discrimination, bullying and their own privilege, and choose to change the current course for others.
  2. Leaders must commit to the principle “50/50, if not why not?”
  3. Couples must commit to the “50/50, if not why not?” principle at home.
  4. Workplaces must invest in the empowerment of their staff as well as their leaders. For example, if you are rolling out unconscious bias training, discrimination, harassment and bullying, then you also need to roll out training for all employees to understand the impact of those behaviours, and equip them with strategies to respond.

Empowering those without power means instilling in them a belief that they matter. That they are part of the solution, and that they can call out and report unwelcome behaviours without fear of vilification and victimisation. Expecting them to shake off feelings that go to the core of their self-worth, dignity and humanity is not the solution.