When it comes to harassment, it's not victims who should bear the professional risk

UNACCEPTABLE: Power imbalances are at the heart of the issue of sexual harassment. Picture: Shutterstock
UNACCEPTABLE: Power imbalances are at the heart of the issue of sexual harassment. Picture: Shutterstock

It quite honestly staggers me that sexual harassment is so prevalent in an industry that is meant to be about facilitating justice.

In fact, the Law Society of NSW called on law firms earlier this year to affirm their commitment to eliminating sexual discrimination, harassment and bullying in the workplace.

According to NSW Law Society figures, there were 4278 firms in NSW, and 31,000 members. Yet only 180 signed up to the original charter. That speaks volumes.

I ummed and ahhed over writing about this, as there will be many people reading it who think, "if you can't hack it with the big boys, you shouldn't bother showing up."

And I nearly didn't write it. However, the standard you stay silent about is the standard you accept - and I'm just not OK with that.

From law school to the High Court of Australia and houses of parliament, there is no immunity it seems.

We live and work in our bubbles and accept what we see as part of the landscape of our chosen profession.

But when a global study by the International Bar Association found that a third of female lawyers in Australia had been harassed at work, we know that we have a problem.

So, why does this happen? The answer really comes down to a power imbalance based on entitlement on one side and a sense of disempowerment on the other.

When a teacher or a boss is in a position of authority over you, they hold your future in credit - either by the (often unspoken) threat of withholding marks, or the security of your work.

When you are beholden to that person for your own wellbeing (and sometimes, perceived survival), it can outweigh your personal belief in our right to not be exposed to such behaviour.

As a result, we put ourselves second in the professional relationship stakes and the more they get away with, the more they take ... egged on by the belief that if they can get away with it, it must be OK.

How do we balance the power scales? Sexual harassment is often represented as a safety issue as it is deemed to be a health and safety "risk", which forces businesses to be proactive in addressing and preventing such instances.

This process involves identifying hazards, assessing and controlling risks, and reviewing control measures to ensure they are working as planned.

However, is the "hazard" deemed to be the victim of the harassment, the harasser, or the workplace culture?

Are we just inviting businesses to "remove the problem" and fire or "redistribute" the person experiencing the harassment?

Or perhaps encourage hiring practices that don't cross the gender divide?

Despite the focus on workplace health and safety policy with regards to sexual harassment issues in the workplace and classroom, the first thing that we all need to remember is that it is against the law in the workplace and in schools.

There's a reason for this that goes beyond "political correctness" - the impact that this behaviour has on others can be immense.

Sexual harassment can be experienced by both men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes, and it can lead to both psychological and physical harm.

Some of the effects can include feelings of isolation, social dislocation, loss of confidence, social withdrawal, stress, depression, anxiety, PTSD ... and this list doesn't even include the negative impacts on a person's job, career, financial security and study engagement and success.

Power relationships are a part of the landscape in workplaces and schools, but when you are the one with the power, you have a responsibility to make sure that you aren't taking advantage of those under your leadership.

It should be the responsibility of the those above you to monitor your success with this endeavour, and to be a port of call in the event that a person under your leadership has concerns.

It isn't really surprising that in an Australia where we are made to feel eternally grateful for our employment and study positions, the onus - and the professional risk - is really borne by the victim of the harassment to do something about it.

And while I don't have all the answers, I can confidently say that it is never OK to abuse your position of authority like this.

So regardless of its impact on me, I refuse to sit idly by and accept this as "the norm" to suck up and get on with.

Enough. It's time to pull your head in.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au. Twitter: @ZoeWundenberg

This story When it comes to harassment, it's not victims who should bear the professional risk first appeared on The Canberra Times.