Fewer than one in five large Australian companies trust their directors to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace, new research shows.
The study, conducted by Gender Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins and the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI), also found that, despite a spate of sexual harassment at Australian companies, more than half boards do not regularly discuss publishing it.
Instead, the discussion around the board table, where company policy and direction is set, was usually triggered by allegations made within the company or reports of misconduct in another organization.
The Respect @ Work report on sexual harassment in the workplace, which was also produced by Jenkins and released in 2020, was another trigger for board discussions, cited by 16% of respondents.
âSexual harassment in the workplace is a systemic and costly problem that flourishes under the guise of confidentiality and secrecy,â Jenkins said in the most recent study report.
âWorkers, customers, investors, journalists and the community, especially women, have had enough. “
ACSI works on governance issues for its members, the big super funds, who are increasingly concerned about the damage done to the companies they invest in by harassment scandals.
Last year, the chairman of the financial services group AMP, David Murray, resigned after shareholders protested his handling of the harassment allegations against CEO Boe Pahari.
Other companies affected by allegations of sexual harassment in recent years include ANZ, IOOF and IFM Investors.
Louise Davidson, CEO of ACSI, said some companies are now taking sexual harassment more seriously, but some “haven’t really started.”
“There is certainly a lot of room for a greater level of focus on this point.”
She said sexual harassment was not just a gender equity issue, but also a health and safety issue.
âIf people can’t be safe in their workplace then that’s a very big issue, but I don’t think it’s been seen that way traditionally.
“It’s kind of the secret that has been whispered in the halls.”
She said the practice of companies using nondisclosure agreements, which prevent victims from speaking in exchange for money, has helped perpetuate the silence.
âThey tend to suppress any discussion or openness about what’s going on in an organization, and that’s not a good thing,â she said.
“The men who continue to be promoted and take advantage of the fact that the women they have harassed have signed a confidentiality agreement are just totally unacceptable.”
She said there was no doubt that the boards had the primary responsibility for dealing with sexual harassment.
“This doesn’t mean they have to be the ones talking to everyone involved in sexual harassment in any way, but they have to have proper reporting systems addressed to them and an understanding of what is motivating it.” cases of sexual harassment. within their organization.
Only 19% of organizations surveyed said their board had primary responsibility for dealing with sexual harassment. Rather, most companies believed that the CEO or HR manager was responsible.
The survey also found that two-thirds of companies reported sexual harassment to the Agency for Gender Equality in the Workplace, but 14% did not make any external reports.
Executives Jenkins interviewed as part of the research said it was essential for directors to show leadership in addressing sexual harassment.
âThe question our board is asking is, if this was another security issue, would it take you that long to answer it? Said one interviewee.
The report made eight recommendations for companies, including strengthening board accountability and setting gender diversity goals, and using executive compensation targets to focus bosses’ attention. On the question.
He also recommends that investors ask companies about their processes for handling sexual harassment and push for public disclosure of incidents.
The survey received responses from 118 of Australia’s top 200 listed companies. Jenkins also conducted in-depth interviews with representatives from 16 of the companies.