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Speaking out against sexual harassment in the workplace

Kerrie-Anne Chinn
2017-09-21

In recent months, there’s been a lot of media focus and discussion around the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the tech industry.

You’re no doubt already familiar with some of these stories – such as the female entrepreneur propositioned by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist; the chief executive who faced numerous sexist comments from a male investor; and the former Uber engineer who went public about the pattern of sexual harassment she experienced at the company.

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Since then, many women have come forward with their own accounts of sexual harassment in the workplace, as the chain of events has encouraged more female employees to talk publicly about their experiences working within the technology startup industry. And as we're seeing, this is not just an issue for Silicon Valley – the Australian start-up scene is facing similar problems to the United States in this area.

These stories have revealed a lot about the extent of sexism within these male-dominated environments, where there has long been an imbalance of gender. Unfortunately, in 2017, women are still significantly outnumbered when it comes to working in STEM-related studies and careers, making up only one in four IT graduates and fewer than one in 10 engineering graduates.

So what can we do to make sure that we continue open and honest dialogue around this topic? How can we work together to prevent the sexual harassment of women in the workplace?

Addressing gender equality in the workplace

While many tech companies and startups are doing their best to address this issue, more work is needed to dismantle the unconscious bias that often exists towards women in these industries.

A tech company employee (who is currently in the process of a sexual harassment claim against one of her former employers) believes "there's an unconscious bias in the industry that creates discrimination due to the ratio of men to women, it's nothing new – I guess it's more prevalent due to how tech industry has evolved."

"It's important to remember that we are not born with this bias, it's not an [inherent] gender trait, but something we are taught as we grow up,” she says.

A culture of sexual harassment?

Unfortunately, in group environments such as the workplace, sexual harassment can have a knock-on effect on other staff who see it happening around them. When people see others tolerating, or even encouraging, this kind of behaviour, it serves to reinforce and normalise negative male/female stereotypes.

Many male-dominated environments, including the workplace, display that kind of ‘locker room’ culture, where unacceptable actions or comments are passed off as ‘harmless jokes.’ And if you don’t go along with the jokes, you’re no longer 'one of the boys.'

For women working in these environments, there’s often a fear of the backlash that could result from speaking out about sexual harassment – a backlash that could seriously damage their career, reputation and everyday work life. They become caught in between the two fears.

Show zero tolerance for harassment

This is why it’s so important to speak up when you see or hear something unacceptable, even if you’re not in a management position. Calling out sexual harassment in the workplace is everyone’s responsibility, so if you see someone being harassed, please have the courage to report it.

Regardless of the industry you work in, or the job you do, all employees have a legal right to work free from sexual harassment. This means both during working hours and at any form of work-related training activities or functions. And extends to social media and text messaging.

For employers and managers, it’s your responsibility to create and implement a clear and effective policy on sexual harassment, and communicate it to all staff within your organisation. Be sure that your policy is compliant with all local, state and federal laws. Define clear consequences for unacceptable behaviour and monitor staff to make sure employees are complying with this policy.

What constitutes sexual harassment at work?

One of the biggest problems with addressing sexual harassment in the workplace is that it can be hard for people to define. It can take the form of many different behaviours and actions, with some of them less obvious or aggressive than others.

Whilst many people may think of sexual harassment purely in terms of unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate touching, it can also encompass far more subtle forms of behaviour. This often makes people unsure of just where the line falls, and whether someone has crossed that line or not. And unfortunately, women often choose not to report incidents of harassment for fear of ‘overreacting’ – or being told they are overreacting.

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines sexual harassment as “any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.” There are many ways that an individual can be made to feel uncomfortable or intimidated, without physical contact occurring. And they are all potentially damaging.

So regardless of whether someone is staring inappropriately, making sexually suggestive comments, telling or emailing inappropriate “jokes” or subjecting you to unwelcome physical contact – all of these examples are considered sexual harassment and are behaviours that are completely unacceptable in the workplace.

Make all staff aware of sexual harassment policies

Employers in the tech industry (and all industries) must provide regular compulsory training on the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, to help staff properly recognise and address this issue.

Managers, supervisors and team leaders should participate in training specifically relevant for their positions, as they can play a significant role in preventing workplace harassment. Your leaders must be up-to-date with all sexual harassment laws in your state and know how to deal with any incidences in the proper way.

Training can help make it clear to staff that sexual harassment is neither welcome nor tolerated in your organisation. It can also help to make sure that individuals are aware of their rights and are empowered with a clear idea of what constitutes sexual harassment, so they can feel confident in addressing and reporting it.

Empowering women to speak out against harassment

The word ‘empower’ is important here. Because none of this information is really new. And sadly, the stories that have been told by the women mentioned earlier are not new stories. It’s part of a narrative that has existed for centuries.

But with the recent media attention around this issue, we have an opportunity and reminder to make sure we continue talking about the sexual harassment that occurs in male-dominated industries. And an opportunity to feel empowered to effect change in this area.

By speaking out against sexual harassment, and calling out inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, you can challenge and change the dynamics in your own sphere of influence. You’ll also be encouraging other women, and men, to do the same.

As Amber Tamblyn said in a recent article in the New York Times:

"We are learning that the more we open our mouths, the more we become a choir. And the more we are a choir, the more the tune is forced to change."

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