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Launch Of Sexual Harassment Prevention Week

Hon Laila Harre
October 16 2000 Speech Notes

Launch Of Sexual Harassment Prevention Week
6pm
Grand Hall
Parliament

Good evening, and welcome to everyone who has gathered here tonight to launch New Zealand's inaugural Sexual Harassment Prevention Week.

I would like to start by sincerely thanking the Human Rights Commission for tackling this issue head on. Unfortunately for women, sexual harassment is still too often dismissed as political correctness gone mad. It's beyond time that this myth was exposed, and the analysis and research that the Human Rights Commission has carried out in preparation for this week does just that.

As a woman, the NFO CM Research survey that found one in three female respondents have been sexually harassed, and the majority at work, didn't particularly surprise me. What is significant about this information is that it's the first time we have had hard data to back up an assumption largely based on anecdote and the handful of extreme cases that get reported.

It's taken a long time for sexual harassment to be acknowledged as a serious issue in society, and this research is a starting point by which we can measure the progress we will hopefully make over the coming years.

This new evidence exposes quite a different reality – that people, mainly women, still tolerate levels of unwelcome and offensive conduct to towards them. It also reveals there is still a fairly low level of understanding by men as to the impact of their behaviour on women.

The impact of ongoing sexual harassment on the self-esteem women, particularly in the workplace, should not be underestimated. The Human Rights Commission's analysis of complaints over the past five years speaks for itself. Presented in the aptly titled report Unwelcome and Offensive, the analysis revealed that 63% of complainants felt there was no option but to resign from their jobs and some were even fired.

Unfortunately, women have learned to put up with and not complain when they are the targets of sexual conversations or sexual innuendo, and men too still find this a difficult issue to talk about. But by and large it is a men's issue that women are having to deal with the consequences of.

As the author of Sex and Power Boundaries Peter Rutter put it: "…the harassment problem exists in a large part because many perfect decent and reasonable men have simply never had anyone tell them, clearly and credibly, that some of their behaviour is sexually offensive to the women around them. Instead, role model after role model has taught each new generation of men that when a man has some sexual interest in a woman it is alright to test her boundaries by exposing her to sexualised verbal or physical messages and seeing how she responds."

It's time for women to start responding with the clear, credible message that sexual harassment is not okay. But I believe there will have to be a few cultural changes before more women will feel comfortable about speaking out.

There are several ways society can work together to improve the reporting and reduce the occurrence of sexual harassment, but the focus of this week is on the change that needs to take place is in workplace culture.

This is not an easy task, especially given that the majority of complaints were from workplaces with less than 10 employees. Employment sectors over-represented in complaints are also big employers of women, namely the food and hospitality industry. But these appear to be the kind of workplaces least likely to have a sexual harassment prevention strategy in place.

Certainly it's much easier for larger workplaces to implement effective procedures for both talking about sexual harassment before it happens, and dealing with it internally if it does.

Perhaps small business owners don't see sexual harassment prevention as a priority in an already crowded work programme. But the reality is that if an employer doesn't act on a complaint it effectively means he or she is a party to the harassment, and will be held liable. This is reflected both in the Human Rights Act and in the new Employment Relations Act.

One way small businesses can come up with strategies to counter sexual harassment is drawing on the expertise of the Human Rights Commission, which offers clear guidelines on the basics of getting a sexual harassment prevention programme up and running. Another initiative tied in with prevention week is the establishment of a new national network of sexual harassment prevention trainers, which I would encourage all organisations to make the most of.

Network trainers will deliver two-hour workshops around the country during this week, and the service will continue through the rest of the year. This is the first time New Zealand has had a network of this kind.

This week's campaign is designed to raise people's awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment, why it is a problem and what can be done about it. I think it is vital that we all view this week as the beginning of an ongoing campaign, not just a short burst of attention to this very serious issue. Neither will this week be the panacea that wipes sexual harassment off the discrimination index. It is about making people think, making them question their own behaviour and think seriously about what level of sexual reference they are comfortable with in their public lives.

Rather than trying to define right and wrong, the Commission aimed to provoke this level of thought and discussion through a media campaign that includes its first ever television promotion. What the commercial aims to do is motivate employers who want to know more about prevention to pick up the phone and ask for advice. Rather than trying to explain to you, here it is on the big screen.

Another way employers are involved in sexual harassment is as perpetrators. The study of complaints revealed that some bosses, managers and business owners are abusing their positions of power by asking women, mainly younger women, to endure unacceptable levels of harassment. Of the 284 of complaints lodged with the Commission over the past five years 90% involved men sexually harassing women, and of the cases that occurred in the workplace 72% of the perpetrators were in a position of seniority over the person they harassed.

So when we talk about sexual harassment in the workplace we're not just talking about incidents between co-workers who sit next to each other in the office – in many cases it boils down to quite fundamental abuses of power.

This power is not only in seniority within an organisation, but also seniority in terms of age. The average age of respondents was 42 years, the average of complainants was 25 years – a 17 year age difference. This is unacceptable, and women themselves need to be better supported to react and report low level sexual harassment before it reaches the extremes that the Human Rights Commission all too often deals with.

I would like end with the quote by author Stephen Schulhofer, author of The Missing Entitlement.

Schulhofer writes that like the other personal rights we take for granted, such as our rights over our property, our personal privacy or our labour, it's time that we faced up to the fact the fact that our sexual autonomy is no less important.

"Like the other core interests of a free person, sexual autonomy deserves to be respected as a genuine entitlement, fully protected in its own right."

I believe this week is a good first step towards this goal.

Thank-you


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