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Why is sexual harassment in the AFP systemic? And can the culture be changed?

Tackling entrenched sexualised mistreatment in a large organisation such as the Australian Federal Police is far more than a numbers game. AAP/Lukas Coch

Why is sexual harassment in the AFP systemic? And can the culture be changed?

A report released this week revealed widespread and entrenched sexual harassment and bullying in the ranks of the Australian Federal Police (AFP). Like similar reviews before it, the extent and severity of sexual harassment in the AFP was reported as “shocking”. The problem was also described as “systemic” and requiring significant “cultural reform”.

Acknowledging that sexual harassment is an issue that goes beyond individual behaviour is critical. But what makes sexual harassment systemic? And how can the AFP and other organisations achieve the cultural reform needed to respond adequately?

What makes sexual harassment a systemic problem?

To say a workplace problem is systemic means its underlying causes are deeply embedded in an organisation’s structures and everyday practices.

Although it is individuals who perpetrate negative conduct in the workplace, the norms of a particular environment may allow or even encourage such behaviours.

In the case of sexual harassment, the systemic causes have a gendered basis. In policing and other male-dominated environments, stereotypical masculine qualities are often valorised, while feminine qualities are denigrated.

While women are the predominant targets of sexual harassment, this explains why gay men (or those thought to be gay) are at higher risk of being sexually harassed.

If a man violates dominant norms of masculine behaviour, he may well become a target – usually by other men and occasionally by women. In a similar way, when women sexually harass men, this is thought to be because they buy into dominant male stereotypes and behave this way to “fit in”.

Sexual harassment is more likely to occur in workplaces that are characterised by:

  • a patronage system of training, where trainees depend on a small group of powerful, senior (usually male) colleagues for entry into training, job opportunities and career progression;

  • violence-supportive attitudes;

  • conservative norms of gender or sexuality, including the sexualisation and subordination of women;

  • celebrity status and entitlement and an associated lack of accountability for one’s actions;

  • male bonding, where codes of mateship and loyalty in tightly knit male groups intensify sexism and encourage group loyalties to override personal integrity;

  • excessive consumption of drugs and especially alcohol, which is a potential risk factor for sexual assault;

  • little or no access to flexible work, or career penalties associated with using them;

  • hazing or abusive initiation ceremonies targeted at newcomers; and

  • a tolerance or even celebration of promiscuity where women are objectified as potential sexual partners.

How can workplace culture be reformed?

Shifting the “workplace culture” often lies at the heart of goals to achieve systemic change.

But, in reality, putting a finger on what precisely constitutes culture is more difficult. More observable, and therefore more amenable to change, is a focus on an organisation’s functions and everyday practices.

News reports discussing sexual harassment in the AFP focused on the prevalence and nature of the harassment experienced. They also emphasised diversity and gender representation as being key to tackling the problem.

Increasing the numbers of women, especially in senior roles, is often thought to be a key strategy in preventing sexual harassment and achieving broader gender equality.

Few would deny recruitment, retention and promotion initiatives that improve opportunities for women are critical. The lack of representation of women, especially at leadership levels, is both a symptom of and contributing factor to discrimination and harassment.

However, tackling entrenched sexualised mistreatment in a large, dispersed organisation such as the AFP is far more than a numbers game. Compliance strategies such as policy, education and training – while important – are insufficient by themselves to reform workplace culture.

Critical to effective responses is leadership that publicly acknowledges harm, advocates for change, and rejects unprofessional and inappropriate behaviour.

Although often seen as unrelated, access to flexible work arrangements is also integral to improving the status of women and preventing discrimination and harassment. This was observed as early as 2006 in a report on sexual harassment in the New South Wales Police Force.

Women who become pregnant, take parental leave and return to work (especially part-time) often face significant discrimination and gender-based hostility – especially if their positions are not back-filled. They are seen as unavailable, uncommitted and contributing to a situation where their colleagues have to work longer and harder.

Research suggests organisational complaints channels and disciplinary processes in relation to sexual harassment are also frequently inadequate. The establishment of confidential, victim-centric mechanisms through which internal complaints can be received and managed is essential. This gives targets of sexual harassment confidence their complaints will be dealt with in a safe, sensitive manner.

Managers, whatever the workplace context, often set the standards of behaviour around gender equality. They should be rewarded for good work performance and supported in calling out and disciplining unprofessional sexualised misconduct in its early stages. Such measures are indicative of improved investment in people-management skills.

What organisations can expect during a reform process

Research has long established that any organisation that embarks on a focused process of reform around gender equality should expect that not everyone will be on board.

Many employees will acknowledge reform is essential and strongly support the organisation in achieving change. However, some backlash is inevitable.

As a review of Victoria Police found, some will deny value in a more diverse workforce. Some will not be able to adjust to a workplace that demands gender equality and respect for women. Others will contend that concerns are infrequent and historical, and that measures to tackle entrenched gender inequality are unfair or a form of “reverse discrimination”.

The risk of backlash is that women will be further victimised in the wake of such reforms.

The AFP has acknowledged sexual harassment is widespread and serious, caused by systemic failures in the organisation, and demands reform so women can experience safety and dignity in their workplace. In doing so, there is an opportunity to embody what should be core aspirations in Australian society.