Advisory Board: Maintaining Momentum for Change
A burst of attention and nation-wide marches protesting workplace sexual harassment and the treatment of women marked the beginning of 2021. But hopes this would lead to rapid and widespread change in many workplaces haven’t been met, according to discussion at the latest Women & Leadership Australia Advisory Board meeting.
The momentum from the outcry and focus earlier this year has faltered as clear action, and overt leadership commitment, remains patchy.
But while that crucial shift has often failed to materialise a number of board members reported some changes, with an increase in claims of harassment and bullying, greater demand for advice on building workplace inclusion and efforts to provide safe channels for complaints.
Several noted that pressure to address the problem was a recognition of the increasing risk harassment and bullying represents for many organisations due to serious financial and reputational costs.
The need to offer employees reporting channels that protect them from career backlash and effective resolution mechanisms is slowly sinking in too.
Perhaps just as importantly, several board members noted preventative steps have been introduced in some organisations. This includes training on respectful workplace relationships, bystander training and a focus on proactive identification of harassment/bullying cases.
On a broader level, work is continuing to address the poor culture in Parliament House and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership is working to develop a Code Of Conduct in parallel with the review being led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.
The recently enacted Victorian Gender Equality Act 2021 provides a template for other States with a legislated framework for mandatory measuring and reporting progress towards gender equity by public sector employers.
A less overt shift noted by some members was an overdue recognition from boards and executives that bullying and harassment faced by women are driven by gender inequity which is a strategic business issue – and needs attention beyond HR.
Racism remains a brutal reality for women from diverse backgrounds, the board heard, and demand from business for information and advice on addressing the toxic mix with sexism is on the increase. There has been growing impetus for change from #BlackLivesMatter and Stop Asian Hate campaigns.
But even raising the topic usually has repercussions, especially for younger or less senior women employees.
Meanwhile, even though the economic recovery appears to be underway, women continue to bear the brunt of increased unpaid work.
Women in a number of WLA programs continue to report high levels of exhaustion and anxiety from the burden of unpaid work as the pandemic progresses and concern about the future of their jobs. Many also feel a lack of power to call out bullying.
Despite some progress in the business community, WLA has also identified a need for more male leadership training on creating inclusive workplaces, and organisational bystander training.
As an experienced provider of leadership development and gender equity initiatives, WLA has an opportunity to extend its offering to include men in inclusive leadership programs, through its sister organisation Australian School of Applied Management.
The need to keep up the momentum for change remains a concern for WLA and the board.
Regardless of the recent slow pace of progress, however, most agreed the high-profile events this year have acted as a long overdue circuit breaker for employers.
The key messages from the discussion:
- The transition from talk to action on workplace sexual harassment and gender inequity needs more commitment in organisations – including senior leadership training on identifying and addressing the problems and bystander training to create safety for employees and tackle backlash for those reporting
- Senior men are struggling to respond to the current changes and the demand for women’s empowerment – lack of understanding/fear is preventing leaders from speaking out about the need for action which targeted education could address
- Intersectionality remains a significant barrier and disadvantage for many women with widespread racism yet to be effectively acknowledged or tackled in many workplaces, and few options to safely raise concerns.