Despite more than 30 years of legislation in Australia outlawing it, sexual harassment’s continued pervasiveness has been highlighted in recent years in diverse fields such as surgery, sport and the law. And now an independent review of sex discrimination and sexual harassment – including predatory behaviour – in Victoria Police, released on Wednesday, has made some compelling findings.
With more than 5000 participants, it is the largest study of workplace sexual harassment conducted in the world – aside from US military settings. And 40% of female and 7% of male respondents answered yes to the question:
Have you ever personally experienced sexual harassment?
For women, the lifetime prevalence rate in Victoria Police is higher than that found in the broader Australian community (33%) or in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) (25%) – an organisation that has recently suffered a string of sexual harassment-related incidents.
For men, lifetime prevalence is higher than in the ADF (3%) and lower than in the community (9%). The review found 68% of female and 57% of male Victoria Police employees who responded to the survey had witnessed at least one form of sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years.
Sexual harassment is a persistent and damaging problem in many Australian workplaces. But why does it appear to be an entrenched feature of some organisational settings more than others?
The nature of policing work
Policing is challenging work. Police are confronted daily with dangerous and traumatic incidents and interactions. Many identify strongly and personally with being a police officer and believe it takes a certain type of person to do police work. Police often establish strong bonds with each other and describe their colleagues as “family”.
To cope with the rigours of policing, police are expected to be strong, resilient and unemotional in dangerous situations. The review heard from participants that police should not need to seek support or assistance, even in the face of tragic or frightening incidents.
These relationships and identities have direct implications for sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based hostility. Although many employees had experienced collegiality and support in Victoria Police, participants also reported that being a victim of sexual harassment, predatory behaviour or sex discrimination was inconsistent with an identity of being a strong and resilient police officer.
Other police officers selectively bestowed loyalty upon perpetrators. Some perpetrators deliberately invoked the values of loyalty and belonging to ensure their conduct was overlooked or minimised.
Reporting sexual harassment – including physical and sexual assault – by targets or witnesses was regarded as an act of disloyalty – even treachery – to “the team”.
The review found overwhelming evidence of serious and chronic under-reporting of sex discrimination and sexual harassment. Only 11% of targets made a formal complaint or reported their experience of sexual harassment. Those who did report were often subjected to exclusion, ostracism, shaming, physical and emotional abuse, and negative impacts on their career and livelihood.
This is consistent with recent findings of workplace sexual harassment studies into the ADF and among surgeons.
Normative constructions of masculinity
Strength, assertiveness, resilience and the ability to keep personal emotions in check are attributes closely associated with normative ideals of masculinity in Victoria Police.
In contrast, qualities typically associated with femininity – such as compassion, empathy and passivity – are framed negatively and considered unsuitable for effective police officers. In environments where masculine qualities are highly valued and feminine qualities are denigrated, a sexist climate will often prevail.
The review found substantial evidence in Victoria Police of an everyday sexist climate, including a very high tolerance for sexualised behaviours and interactions. Amid such attitudes, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sex discrimination found in Victoria Police is hardly surprising.
This is despite the organisation being at the forefront of reforms to improve the experiences of women who report family violence and sexual assault in the community.
There was also evidence of backlash against and hostility towards the review by mainly male Victoria Police employees, but also some women. Men were more than twice as likely as women to suggest that discrimination is no longer a problem in the workplace in Australia. Some also believed that measures to address entrenched gender inequality were unfair and a form of reverse discrimination.
The impacts of sexual harassment were often devastating. Harm included serious negative effects on physical and mental health, including depression and stress, isolation and exclusion, economic loss and reduced opportunities for professional development and advancement. A number of women told the review they felt “broken”.
Cumulative, everyday experiences of apparently “low-level” workplace sexism – such as sexist jokes and remarks – can impair personal and occupational well-being as much as incidents that are less frequent and arguably more severe.
Echoing previous research, men who deviated from prescribed male gender norms were also negatively impacted by the high value placed on traditional masculine qualities. Male Victoria Police officers observed and experienced widespread homophobia. Gay men experienced rates of workplace sexual harassment six times higher than men overall.
Moving towards a gender-equal workplace
The unique nature of policing work and the value placed on normative constructions of masculinity in Victoria Police are two key features of a workplace context that sanctions sexual harassment and other forms of gender hostility.
However, the same root causes can be seen in many organisations to a greater or lesser degree, or can even manifest differently across areas in a single organisation.
Tackling sexism and sexual harassment in Victoria Police or any other workplace setting involves more than writing new workplace policies and implementing new systems – although these are important. The challenge is to increase gender diversity and reshape the workplace culture by establishing a more inclusive organisation.
In an environment such as Victoria Police, this will require clear and unambiguous leadership to shift deeply held ideas about what it means to be a “good police employee” and to reset expectations about the role and treatment of women.