A report released by VicHealth encourages bystanders to do more to counter sexist attitudes and behaviour. 'More than ready: Bystander action to prevent violence against women in the Victorian community" surveyed community attitudes and found that people were hesitant to act to subtle behaviour such as sexist comments, jokes and slang.
Melbourne Business School's Centre for Ethical Leadership is conducting a three-year research project with some of Australia's leading organisations to discover the reasons behind gender inequality and to deliver solutions that go beyond existing measures.
Question: How common is sexual harassment in the average Australian workplace?
Victor Sojo: According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, in 2008, around 4% of the population reported experiencing sexual harassment at work over the previous five years. This represents a decrease when compared to 2003 with 11% reported. Women are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment at work, with figures of 22% of women and 5% of men. Eighty-one per cent of harassers are male and the majority of sexual harassment involved a male harasser and female target (62%), followed by cases where men harass other men (18%). Also, in 2008 about 12% of the general population indicated they had witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years. Almost half of the people who have experienced sexual harassment at work have also seen other people being victims of sexual harassment.
In the same 2008 study, 22% of respondents who initially replied that they had not experienced 'sexual harassment" at work in the last five years later indicated experiencing one or more behaviours that constitute sexual harassment under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. The two most commonly reported sexual harassment behaviours are (i) sexually suggestive comments or jokes that made the target feel offended; and (ii) Intrusive questions about the target's private life or physical appearance that made her or him feel offended. Even 3% of this last group pointed out they had been victims of inappropriate physical contact at work (a clear element of sexual harassment). Hence, simply asking people if they had been victims of 'sexual harassment" by providing a broad definition of the term is not enough. Explicit questions providing examples of the behaviours is required for a thorough account of sexual harassment at work.
Question: Is sexism more common in male-dominated workplaces?
Victor Sojo: By definition it is. The characterisation of a work environment as male dominated is not only due to the numerical dominance of men, but also includes considerations of differential power. The sources of differential power may be positional, such as when men are more strongly represented in the higher levels of the organisation, or more structural and cultural, such as when formal and informal practices are discriminatory or derogatory towards women. For instance, in law firms there might be the same amount of men and women working as lawyers, with more females at the entry level, but men make the larger number of partners and therefore have greater positional power than women. The lack of representation of women in senior leadership positions in most companies means that decision rights are exercised through a male perspective, which could hinder women's hiring and promotion without that being the intention.
Power imbalance between men and women have also been found to influence a range of negative outcomes for women, including inequality of opportunities for advancement, over-performance demands, stereotype threat, a general permissiveness for sexual bravado, sexual posturing and denigration of feminine behaviour, sexual harassment and a general lack of social support for women.
Sexism and sexual harassment are not necessarily a characteristic of a specific industry but circumstances of employment and the particular workplace structure or culture.
Question: Have sexist jokes become a way of life, in many Australian workplaces?
Victor Sojo: According to the available research, jokes of a sexual nature are still the most common form of sexual harassment taking place in Australian organisations, although most workers don't think of them as a form of sexual harassment. More than 50% of the people who indicate they have experienced sexual harassment and around 10% of the people who indicate they have not experienced sexual harassment report having been a victim of sexual jokes. Also, only half of the population would say sexual jokes are never acceptable at work.
Consistently, research has shown that sexual harassment is more likely to happen in organizations that are more permissive of that kind of behaviour and where the workers perceive more tolerance for covert and overt devaluation of women. These studies highlight the importance of the whole society and the organizational culture as facilitators for the occurrence of sexist events.
Question: Many Australians believe if a sexist joke is funny, it's okay – what message do you have for those people?
Victor Sojo: Sexist jokes are never ok. Sexist jokes are a double insult for the target of the joke. In the first instance when the joke is said, the target of the joke is being publicly attacked and devalued by the content of the joke; in the second instance if the victim of the joke dares to speak up and to indicate the joke is not acceptable, they are ridiculed for not having a sense of humour, for overreacting and for taking the situation too seriously.
Both sexual jokes and sexual slang immediately reinforce negative stereotypes in the perpetrator, the victim and the bystanders. There is enough evidence on how the reinforcement and persistence of prejudice have a negative impact on the mental well-being and social functioning of both the groups that hold the stereotype and the stereotyped groups. Hence, it is vital to change the 'just a joke" mindset for a 'not just a joke" mindset.
Question: How important is it to equip young employees with the knowledge of gender and discrimination equality?
Victor Sojo: It is of supreme importance to do so. First, research has indicated that a considerable amount of people would not identify a sexist event as such, even though they might be feeling uncomfortable about it. Additionally, research has shown that even after recognising an event as an instance of sexism, people might decide to do nothing about it because they feel they are not competent enough to confront the perpetrator in a non-aggressive and assertive way and other people might decide not to act because they feel they do not have the social support of their peers.
Providing individuals with education about what sexism is, what sexual harassment is, the incidence of both, mechanisms to prevent it (e.g., the use to procedures or tools to take prejudice and biases out of important decision making processes in organisations), and communications skills (e.g., how to hold difficult conversations where people will have to speak up assertively to defend themselves or co-workers) are important. Organisations could provide training to their workers with the aim to increase gender equality at work, not only to their young employees but also to managers who are meant to lead the change.
Question: What negative consequences result when sexism is evident in the workplace?
Victor Sojo: Witnessing a sexist event at work that is not managed properly will demoralise employees. The inconsistency between organisational values of respect, diversity, cooperation and collegiality and the experience of sexist events at work will be highlighted. In these situations workers may lose respect for the organisation and the values it is supposed to stand for. It might also be a sign that sexist behaviours are actually permitted causing employees to want to distance themselves from the organisation, not only psychologically but physically.
Particularly for women who are victims of sexist events, there are four main areas of functioning and wellbeing that are affected:
Performance: the evidence indicates that both a sexist organisational climate and sexual harassment are negatively related to women's performance at work. Being subjected to gender based harassment, prejudice and discrimination is related to poorer work performance for women.
Retention: Women are more likely to leave the organisation when they are exposed to an environment that rewards traditional masculine values, such as the devaluation of women, sexual bravado, aggression and that is permissive of sexual harassment and where sexual harassment actually takes place.
Health: Women working in a culture where they are perceived as incompetent due to their gender, where there is tolerance for sexual harassment and where sexual harassment takes place report more physical symptoms, psychological symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety, PTSD) and less life satisfaction.
Work attitudes: In this environment, women report less satisfaction with their career and jobs, less organisational commitment and less job involvement. Also, women exposed to stereotype threat (i.e. they are perceived as incompetent because of their gender) become less involved with their work.
Question: How often do women stand up for themselves when a sexist joke is told in the workplace?
Victor Sojo: In general, only around 15% of those who have been sexually harassed in the last five years in the workplace formally reported or made a complaint. Most people indicate they do not complain because (i) they do not think the issue is serious enough, (ii) they are afraid of negative impact on themselves, (iii) they do not have faith in the complaint process, (iv) they took care of the problem themselves (this is around 30% of the people).
Question: How can bystanders to sexist behaviour act to prevent further comments?
Victor Sojo: The main role of bystanders is to speak up. It is important for bystanders to find an assertive way to explain to the perpetrator that their sexist behaviour is not appropriate due to the negative consequences it has on the victim of the behaviour and the organisational climate, and make clear that such behaviour will not be tolerated.
Equally important is the support provided to the bystanders. It is crucial for the bystanders to feel the organisation as an institution and their peers or team members will back them up when they decide to speak up. To achieve this, organisations need clear policies and practices to deal with sexism at work and workers should receive training around how to manage sexist events.
Question: Why do you believe we still have gender inequality in Australian workplaces and do you believe this will ever change?
Victor Sojo: At the root of gender inequality at work are two closely related factors. First, most organisations are led by men; men define the values, mission and vision of organisations and how they should be put into practice. In this context it is easier for a masculine norm to be generated and transmitted from one generation to the next one. Being in a position of power, any effort to increase gender equality could be perceived as a risk for their position and they would be more likely to resist change.
Second, over the years the male dominance of most work environments has led to formal structures and informal cultures that facilitate the promotion of men at work. Those practices (e.g., inflexible work arrangements, allocation of salary based on negotiation instead of type of job and experience, decision about promotions and allocation of task in informal meetings) and cultures (e.g., acceptance of sexual slang and sexual jokes, exclusion of women from informal group activities at work, lack of instrumental support for women that is provided to men) hinder women's functioning and growth at work.
Finally, gender equality is still a problem because not enough people with power in organisations have accepted the challenge that changing this situation represents. This kind of cultural change requires the commitment of government so that legislation around inequality and discrimination is created (in Australia that has already happened) and pressure on organisations to comply with regulations (in Australia this is starting to happen).
Another factor that will help is making the leaders of the organisations commit to, and be accountable for, the achievement of gender equality, not only because it is smart and economically wise but because it is an issue of human rights. A moral stance on this issue is more likely to trigger more respect from the employees than merely presenting the business case. Finally these committed organisational leaders have to transmit the vision of and actions toward equality to every single employee.
Interview by Brooke Hunter