Report Reveals Sexual Harassment Endemic to Parliament

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has released a landmark report on harassment in parliamentary workplaces. Set the Standard is the result of a review set in motion by allegations of sexual assault made by Brittany Higgins earlier this year. While the results are grim, they’re sadly unsurprising.

What is Set the Standard?

Released on November 30th, Set the Standard is the Australian Human Rights Commission Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces (CPWs).

The report is the culmination of seven months of in-depth research, including hundreds of interviews, written submissions and survey results. Participants included current and former parliamentarians and staffers, experts, and organisations.

What were the findings?

The Report indicates that 51% of individuals currently working in CPWs have experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault in the workplace. 77% have witnessed or heard about such behaviour.

Disturbingly, the Review indicates one in three CPW employees has been sexually harassed at their workplace. However, only 11% of sexual harassment victims reported their abuse, and only 32% of bullying victims.

An infographic from Set the Standard breaks down sexual harassment findings.

These numbers are already jarring enough for a developed democratic nation living in the 21st century. But the personal accounts of interviewees are even moreso.

Commenting on the toxic bullying culture, one participant said “Frequently, like at least every week, the advice was go and cry in the toilet so that nobody can see you, because that’s what it’s like up here.” Many interviewees reported feeling that nothing would be done if they chose to file complaints, or that bullying was not made to seem unacceptable.

The pervasiveness of sexism and male privilege in every nook and cranny of government was the key takeaway of the report. One interviewee summarised, “It is a man’s world and you are reminded of it every day”.

The Report lists repulsive anecdotes such as, “The MP sitting beside me leaned over…He grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. The others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating.”

Interview accounts also stress the long-term mental health effects on women who suffer through the high-stress ‘boys club’ culture of CPWs: “One tried to commit suicide, another admitted themselves into a mental facility. I know three women [who worked in CPWs] that are still seeing psychologists. One had a marriage breakdown, and one has completely dislocated with her children as a result of the direct influence of that member of parliament.”

What are the recommendations?

The Report makes a total of 28 recommendations. Some of the key measures include:

  • A statement of acknowledgement of the harm caused by bullying and sexual harassment and assault;
  • the establishment of specific targets and actions to increase diversity in the workplace to increase representation of women, First Nations people, people of colour and LGBT+ individuals;
  • and implementation of comprehensive alcohol policies.
Advocate Grace Tame is one of many expressing cynicism about the Government’s willingness to take recommendations on board, given this administration’s track record.

The Report also recommends the establishment of additional bodies to help execute necessary measures, such as an Office of Parliamentarian Staffing and Culture and an Independent Parliamentary Standards Commission. These groups would draft new Codes of Conduct and support implementation of training and reporting mechanisms.

“There is a stark contrast between the complexity and gravity of the work being done in parliamentary offices and the lack of sophisticated workplace structures and practices to support this work,” Commissioner Jenkins said. “That can and should change.”

You can access the full report and executive summaries here.

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