Using global learnings to combat sexual harassment and discrimination

Using global learnings to combat sexual harassment and discrimination

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Equality Law Program Manager Aimee Cooper
Equality Law Program Manager Aimee Cooper

Our Equality Law Program Manager Aimee Cooper recently returned from three months of research in Europe and North America looking at better systems for combatting sexual harassment and discrimination at work.

Aimee’s research was made possible through a Churchill Fellowship, awarded by the Churchill Trust to experts across diverse fields to investigate overseas practices that could help address challenges Australia is facing.

Aimee will now spread her knowledge in her daily work managing the Equality Law Program, the state’s largest free discrimination practice. Her learnings will inform the sexual harassment campaign the program is leading, which brings together over 100 organisations in a coalition called ‘Power to Prevent’ and calls for urgent action to stop sexual harassment at work.  

The motivation for Aimee’s research was her practice experience helping people who have experienced discrimination or sexual harassment to make complaints and enforce their rights.

‘As an experienced discrimination and sexual harassment lawyer, I see how our laws unfairly place the burden of enforcement on victims. One of the key problems is that Australia has not empowered our human rights commissions to enforce the law,’ said Aimee.

‘Most people who experience discrimination and harassment do not make a complaint, and when they do it rarely addresses the cause of the problem. Our laws seek to eliminate discrimination and harassment, yet in practice they rarely result in positive changes to our workplaces. It’s frustrating knowing how strong the legal protections available to the community are but seeing how rarely they are brought to life.’

Aimee travelled to countries where the burden of enforcement is shared to investigate what works best in practice and what Australia might do to help bring our equality laws to life.

‘In the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Sweden I learned that the inability of individual complaints to eliminate discrimination and harassment is global. I also learned that Australia is falling behind, and our regulatory framework is now out of step with best practice in addressing this problem,’ said Aimee.

Aimee’s report provides a range of recommendations for reforming our regulatory framework in Australia, drawing on how these frameworks operate overseas. 

Key findings

  • A well-resourced and empowered equality body sharing the burden of enforcement with individuals can improve compliance with equality laws.
  • Equality bodies can bring the hidden operation of equality law to light by insisting on public rather than confidential outcomes. This raises awareness about employers’ obligations under the law and consequences for failing to meet them, encouraging employers to take positive steps towards compliance.
  • Equality bodies can encourage compliance and protect employees without the need for individuals to come forward and bring a claim, through systemic claims or compliance monitoring.  
  • A positive duty on employers to prevent discrimination and harassment is most likely to have an impact if coupled with clear procedural obligations that guide employers on how to implement it.
  • Workplace health and safety agencies can play a key role in addressing sexual harassment, with the agency in Ontario, Canada enforcing compliance with sexual harassment requirements in Ontario’s workplace health and safety law.

‘With the Australian Human Rights Commission about to release its report following the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, we have an opportunity to reform our laws and I’m hopeful that my research can contribute to this and to creating sexual harassment free workplaces in Australia,’ said Aimee.

More information

Read Aimee’s report on the Churchill Fellowship website.  

Read more about the Power to Prevent coalition and our sexual harassment campaign.

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