Why is sexual harassment happening on mining sites? What can your organisation do about it? The current government inquiry into Sexual Harassment against women in the FIFO mining industry chaired by Libby Mettam MLA, demonstrates that there is a real problem within the resources industry regarding the safety of women from sexual harassment in the workplace. In a recent survey by the Human Rights Commission it was found that 40% of women in mining had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace within the last 5 years. Although sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t unique to the resources sector, it does experience a far higher occurrence than the general population which sits at 33% experiencing sexual harassment in the last 5 years (The 2020 National Sexual Harassment Survey). I also want to acknowledge that sexual harassment isn’t just against women, however with 79% of harassers being men (The 2020 National Sexual Harassment Survey) it is women who are overwhelmingly subject to this form of violence. This article therefore looks at the problem from the woman’s viewpoint.
The purpose of the current inquiry is to hear evidence as to why the problem exists and to make recommendations. They have already heard a wide range of evidence from individuals who have experienced sexual harassment, from organisations, unions, and interest groups. Looking at what has been heard so far the reasons why seem to fall into 5 main categories:
3. Behaviour escalation
4. Reactions and actions (or lack of)
5. Knowledge and understanding
This article will explore these key areas and give some ideas of what can be done for each one to help organisations eliminate sexual harassment in workplaces.
We are all aware that change doesn’t often happen without someone leading the way. In our country, it’s our elected leaders and, it’s sad to say, Australia doesn’t have a great example here to follow. You may not be aware but up until as recently as 1986 it was illegal for a woman to go underground in a mine. This is behind other parts of the world like the UK, who abolished laws preventing women going underground in 1973. This is relatively recent, so it’s not surprising that women make up only 20% of the workforce including managerial positions. The owners of mines took the attitude that if you wanted to work there, then you would have to be one of the boys, as they were not making any special allowances for you. The idea of equality was to treat everyone the same, with this attitude only changing very recently. This included women having to share sleeping, changing, and gym facilities with their male colleagues. In an ABC article, Ms Alex Atkins shares her experience of starting on a mine site in 1986 where there was no accommodation for her and she had to find her own in the local town (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-15/the-battle-to-keep-women-in-mining/10118930). This is like expecting your daughter to change in the male changing rooms at school and play and compete at sports with the boys, something we would no longer expect as it is understood that equal access isn’t treating everyone the same. Some organisations, like BHP, are leading the way. They have committed $300 million for work to upgrade its sites to make them safe for everyone to work, but this only commenced in 2019. Every organisation can lead the way to make change in their workplace. The first step is for organisations to hear the voice of women and to gain their input on what needs to be done to make the workplace accessible for all and, therefore, promote equal opportunities. They can’t magically increase the number of women in the industry and in leadership positions however, but there are other ways that they can gain this essential input. This includes forming committees, bringing in external talent from other industries, and seeking input from external organisations and bodies who can assist with this work. If organisations want change to happen they need to lead the way through their leadership team setting intentions to change.
The environment described above makes it clear why The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA gave testimony at the inquiry into sexual harassment against women in the FIFO mining industry to say it is concerned that women will not want to work in this kind of environment. When talking about getting women to choose mining as a career, Paul Everingham CEO stated, “But what young impressionable girl would want to work on a mine site thinking she’s going to be sexually harassed or assaulted?” Research has shown us that in workplaces that are male dominated, sexual harassment is more common with those surveyed saying that 70% believed it to be more common or very common (Kantar Public Survey). So if you can’t increase the number of women working on mine sites without making it safe, you need to take action on improving the environment for women to feel safe first. BHP improvements will help attract women to the resources sector which will then help improve the diversity of the workforce, widening the resource pool for women to become managers. However, not every company has $300 million to invest to change facilities, but they can still take action. Some suggested changes include:
● Reduce the amounts of available and allowed alcohol, as alcohol is a known aggravator of sexual violence
● Implement the ‘Ask-for-Angela’ service, a well-known program in the hospitality industry which allows anyone who feels unsafe to use the code word Angela to seek help
● Display signage to raise awareness of known and predictable sexual harassment behaviours
● Produce email and information campaigns regarding these behaviours and how to access support (helplines and other support services)
● Administer a room allocation process for people who feel vulnerable at certain sites
Setting the intention for the workplace to be safe for women sends a strong message to men that certain behaviours will not be tolerated and for women that they are cared for and their safety is important.
This leads us to behaviours. When working with organisations to improve their culture they learn that the behaviours that are accepted by the group become the values of the group and, therefore, the culture of the organisation. It doesn’t matter what values the management team prints on the wall, it’s the behaviour that is accepted that matters. There is a clear escalation of behaviour when it comes to sexual violence. It starts with sexism, the idea that women are of less value than men. Next comes harassment, where it’s okay to make sexually explicit suggestions or advances to women. Then comes sexual assault and violence, where mental and physical abuse is used against you because you are a woman. With 19% of people surveyed thinking that sexist jokes are harmless fun (Kantar Public Survey), you can see that when the acceptance of poor behaviours towards women that devalue them takes place in the workplace, this allows these behaviours to escalate up the ladder. It’s like when we have passed our driving test and we start to emulate those behaviours of other motorists. For example, not bothering to check our blind spot occasionally, as nothing happens and there is no crash, it becomes accepted that we don’t bother to look. We then start to not bother to indicate when we are changing lanes like other drivers, until eventually there is an accident and someone is seriously injured. By making clear the accepted workplace behaviours, promoting and rewarding positive supportive behaviours, and addressing poor behaviours at the outset of sexism will greatly reduce the escalation of behaviour to violence against women. Bystander training can help equip employees with the skills they need to act and support the values and culture a company wants to have in place.
The reaction of the group and the organisation when sexism or sexual harassment takes place, and the subsequent action, is essential to making workplaces mentally and physically safe for women. The news has been rife in recent years with the commonly known ‘secrets’ about men’s poor behaviours in the workplace with the #metoo movement casting a spotlight on companies ‘dealing’ with complaints by covering them up, silencing women through management agreements and payouts with conditions, or simply removing them from the workplace. I think most women who have been in the workplace for at least the last 10 years grew up with the knowledge and experience that sexism and sexual harassment is present and active, but there’s not much point saying anything about it because nothing will be done or change. It takes actions by strong leaders to change this and it has begun to change. The current enquiry will help cast a spotlight on the problems and will hopefully provide some concrete solutions. Organisations such as BHP are good examples of taking action, with 48 dismissals having taken place over the last 2 years due to sexual harassment. This has been since they introduced their zero policy in 2018 supported by a comprehensive campaign to take action. There is legislation in place to make sexual harassment illegal, organisations have policies and procedures to deal with incidences of sexual harassment, however it still takes place within workplaces because it is allowed to by the management team. There is a gap in how employees can report it, how it is investigated, and the action taken. One of the problems is the lack of data collected by organisations as they can’t talk about the specifics of individual cases due to confidentiality. If they don’t collect the data, it is impossible for them to share the action they are taking and consequently send the message that sexual harassment is not accepted and action will be taken against harassers. A simple first step is to start collecting data and report on it to the management team and the workforce, just like we do with safety incidents. As the famous management researcher Peter Drucker says ‘if you measure it, you manage it’.
Finally knowledge and understanding of what is sexist behaviour and what is sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be improved. It is a legal requirement for organisations to ensure that their workforce understand sexual harassment and the consequences of it. Unfortunately, a lot of organisations think that simply having a policy and procedure covers them, along with employees signing contracts to say they will abide by company policies. This is not enough to fulfill your legal obligations. This is highlighted by the court finding companies vicariously liable in cases of rape due to the lack of training received by employees. There needs to be active education of management and employees to understand what their obligations are in this area. I have investigated a number of cases in my previous role as a HR manager and have often heard people say things like ‘I didn’t realise that was sexual harassment’ or ‘I wish I had done something sooner and stepped in before the things got out of hand’. It is an organisation’s responsibility to to equip it’s employees with the knowledge and understanding of not just what sexual harassment is, but the action they need to take to stop it. This can be done through:
● Formal training and awareness sessions
● Poster campaigns
● Personalised email campaigns
It’s time to take action now and stamp out Sexual Harassment in our workplaces in the 5 key areas:
1. Leadership – vocal leadership against Sexual Harassment and increase the voices of women at the senior level
2. Environment – make changes to increase the safety of women in your workplace
3. Behaviours – spell out the behaviours that aren’t accepted and equip employees to be Active Bystanders
4. Actions – ensure action is taken when incidents are reported and start collecting data and reporting on it
5. Knowledge – improve the knowledge of your workforce so they can take action to change
HR & People Development
Sarah has spent three decades as a People and Culture specialist developing IP on how employee engagement, motivation and development can improve the performance of individuals and organisations.