Enough is enough: Sexual harassment at work is a leadership problem

By Celina McEwen, Alison Pullen and Carl Rhodes

On March 14 and 15 March 2021, tens of thousands of people across Australia attended March 4 Justice protests. ‘Enough is enough!’ they exclaimed in calling out the sexism and gendered violence all too prevalent in our society.

The extraordinary turnout signalled that women and their allies have had enough. They were angry at having being silenced, abused and ignored for too long. Broadcast widely in the media, the demand for change was unequivocal.

What was also clear was the reality that in 2021 women still have to march to be heard and still have to fight for fundamental rights. And, this grim reality was made worse by the head-in-the-sand wilful ignorance demonstrated by political leaders.

The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, supported by many male and female politicians, continues to ignore and silence women’s demands to investigate allegations of sexual violence. This is so even, if not especially, when the alleged violence happens under their noses in parliament house or where the accused are senior politicians.

The March4Justice was an exemplary show of determination. But that is not the end. Stamina is required to maintain the anger so that real and lasting changes are made. The question of activists is, therefore, about how they can push for policy reforms and culture change.

Parliament and politicians are in the well-deserved spotlight at the moment, but the problem does not end there. Change is needed in all organisations, whether they are big and small businesses, government, political parties, universities or not-for-profits.

The answer is not easy, but it is simple. Structural and cultural change in our institutions is needed, and we need zero tolerance from our leaders. Under the present government, we are getting neither.

In an article published in English and Portuguese in the Brazilian journal RAE-Revista de Administração de Empresas ((Journal of Business Management), we write about how sexual violence against women in the workplace remains rife and poorly addressed [read the full article or watch the video]

Drawing on Australian Human Rights Commission and Australian Bureau of Statistics data we come to two related conclusions. First, sexual violence is normalised through leadership practices that fail to acknowledge or address it. Second, sexual harassment is often perpetrated by leaders, managers, or supervisors due to abusive power relations.

We argue that recognising and addressing the cultural tolerance for sexual violence in organisations and society is one step in addressing this issue. This means that leaders need to take a deliberate stance against sexual violence.

Further, we suggest that sexual harassment can be prejudiced. In particular, harassment against women who are part of minority groups is an especially pernicious abuse of male power. In workplaces, such violent forms of discrimination are embedded in historically shaped systems of inequality.

These systems produce distinctive experiences that leads to some people being considered less significant than others. Besides gender, differences in the intersections of race, class, sexuality, nationality, age, ethnicity, and ability have material effects on the justice people receive. Not least, these inequalities are perpetuated by the practices and behaviours of organisations.

Tackling sexual violence and achieving equality in organisations means disrupting and replacing the systems that reproduce privilege and injustice. We conclude that making the cultural tolerance of violence unacceptable can be achieved through:

  1. Taking responsibility for all our actions and calling out and prosecuting individual perpetrators at an organisational and national level.
  2. Ensuring a deep commitment from leadership to challenge and transform traditional gendered relations in the workplace.
  3. Changing how systems of inequality operate by analysing reorganising hierarchies and leadership positions within organisations.
  4. Taking a political approach to gender equity that seeks systemic change beyond individual violations or inequalities in isolated organisations.
  5. Creating shared practices and community as exemplified by feminist, union and community movements.
  6. Building strength across axes of difference to disrupt the hierarchy, power and systems on which inequality is perpetuated.

Getting these things done requires shared leadership where justice is on the top of the list of priorities. If the events that led to the March4Justice are anything to go by, at present too many so-called leaders are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Enough is enough.

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