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If bullying can happen to Christine Holgate at the highest level, then what happens to other women at work?

AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

The spotlight is once again on bullying and unfair treatment at work.

Former Australia Post CEO, Christine Holgate, this week said she had been “bullied out of my job […] humiliated and driven to despair.” She described her treatment by the prime minister as “one of the worst acts of bullying I’ve ever witnessed.”

Soon after, cast members from the TV show Neighbours alleged they had been subject to racist and unfair treatment at work.

These allegations, if true, highlight how insidious and prevalent workplace harassment and bullying can be.

Being famous or in a well-paid, high powered job seems to offer no guarantee you can just go to work and get your job done without running the risk of unfair treatment or bullying.

But what about the experiences of those less privileged? This week, I’ve found myself asking yet again: if it can allegedly happen to Holgate at the highest level, or to famous actors on a top TV show, then what happens to other, less privileged women at work?


Read more: 10 ways employers can include Indigenous Australians


The intersection of racism and sexism at work

Workplace bullying and harassment has many guises. Sometimes, it is gendered. Sometimes it is racist. For women of colour, it’s often both. I think we badly need high quality national data on the intersection of racism and sexism when it comes to unfair treatment at work.

Sexual harassment is another form of bullying and unfair treatment at work. The Respect@Work report released recently by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins highlighted that

The risk of sexual harassment was much higher for people who already experience higher rates of disadvantage and discrimination, with 52% of workers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex; 53% of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander workers; and 44% of workers with disability indicating they were sexually harassed at work in the last five years.

As one person told the commission:

I think it’s different [for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women] because there’s a level of racism attached to everything that happens with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And sexual harassment is no different.

Racist and unfair treatment at work

A report recently released by the Jumbunna Institute of Indigenous Education and Research and Diversity Council Australia revealed that racist and unfair treatment at work is a relatively common experience for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers.

The report, titled Gari Yala or “speak the truth” in the Wiradjuri language, drew on the experiences of 1,033 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers.

It revealed:

  • 28% of respondents worked in culturally unsafe workplaces

  • 38% reported being treated unfairly because of their Indigenous background sometimes, often or all the time

  • 44% reported hearing racial slurs sometimes, often or all the time

  • 59% reported experiencing appearance racism – receiving comments about the way they look or “should” look as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person

The report found Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers who experienced racist treatment were:

  • 2.5 times less likely to always be satisfied with their job, compared to those who rarely or never experienced unfair racist treatment

  • three times less likely to always recommend their workplace to other Indigenous people

  • twice as likely to be looking for a new employer in the next year.

A study published in the British Journal of Social Work on the experiences of highly skilled Black African professionals at work found workplaces can be “battlegrounds for racism”.

Participants in that study reported feeling work was a site of constant surveillance and scrutiny, where their competence was often questioned; this is a relatively common experience for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at work, too.

Employers and unions must listen and act

It’s taken a long time to get bullying and unfair treatment at work properly on the agenda.

I don’t think bullying been taken seriously enough by the traditional industrial relations parties in the past because it’s not always seen as an industrial concern. But what the data are telling us is that for many workers — especially workers who are people of colour, or women or both — it is an industrial concern. It is affecting these groups disproportionately and it’s making their working conditions unpleasant and damaging.

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (which represents actors) this week came out strongly to decry racism at work.

Employers also need to act. They need to work harder to find out what unfair treatment their staff are encountering at work.

What the Gari Yala report really showed was that if you’re serious about ending bullying and discrimination at your workplace, the most important thing you can do is talk to your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers.

Find out what they have experienced. Listen and believe them. Part of the problem is the culture of not believing people when they report bullying or unfair treatment at work.

By not listening and not acting on the concerns of the people affected, we allow it to go on unchecked.


Read more: Battlegrounds: highly skilled Black African professionals on racial microaggressions at work


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