Sexual harassment is one of those things in which we see men exercise the culmination of their economic, social and political dominance.
It is so frowned upon that one must expect to get away with it.
I was recently confronted with the issue professionally. An organisation I have long advised on diversity issues required a meeting at the beginning of December. The confirmation email ended with “we’re looking to forward to catching up”, so I didn’t expect anything too dramatic.
As soon as I sat down with the person I was meeting I knew something was wrong. She was on edge and clearly feeling pressure. After 30 minutes, she made sure the door was closed and whispered to me: “I need to tell you something.”
All too familiar for women at work, a man had overstepped the line. Beyond anything that could be deemed professional, he aimed to turn their relationship sexual.
The unfortunate truth is that this isn’t rare. Consistently, data shows us that around one-third of women have experienced a form of sexual harassment. Compare that to the less than 10% of men who have been victims and you can be sure that our attention on females is justified.
We should also note that one in five complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act relate to sexual harassment.
My own mother tells me of times when men have flirted with that professional and sexual line. She impressed upon me that every woman has a story of a man unnecessarily sexualising her. Frustratingly, she is right.
Sexual harassment goes to the heart of gender inequality. At work we are aiming to be productive and strive for organisational success, to fulfil our obligations to managers. And then a man looks at a woman in a particular way. He gets an idea in his mind.
It is objectification unlike anything other, where despite efforts to seem professional and engaged at work this woman is reduced to a commodity of sex. Where a man has deemed that a female colleague’s value and contributions are but in her body.
In launching the Know Where The Line Is strategy, former sex discrimination commissioner Liz Broderick would cite her own experience. “I did what many women do,” she said, “I told my girlfriends at work, concerned bystanders, about his behaviour and asked for advice.”
Yes, relying on friends tends to be the recourse for most women, but we cannot accept that as the custom.
Whether you like it or not, this is what Jamie Briggs achieved in his now infamous night in Hong Kong with his chief of staff and a public servant.
The public servant has taken brave step by raising it with her boss, not because we shouldn’t talk about these issues but because they are often swept under the carpet. Experiential evidence shows us that the closer these issues are to power the more likely they are to be kept secret.
And while Briggs has apologised and waxed lyrical about the standards of conduct that he aims to uphold, his temporary decline is nothing compared with the dignity he denied a public servant that night.
Women can take some heart in the cost Briggs is paying, at least there is one to these actions. Too often men of influence who hold senior roles make gestures or gesticulate in a manner that would be deemed unacceptable if they were more junior or in public.
This isn’t about Briggs, in a safe seat surrounded by people who are willing to call journalists names even a five-year-old would roll her eyes at, he very well may rise again.
This could be a point where more men start to reconsider their actions.
Briggs won’t be the last man to overstep the line with a female colleague, and Peter Dutton won’t be the last man to jump to such a man’s defence. The actions of those who perpetrate, and those who protect them by demeaning people like journalist Samantha Maiden, must face a penalty.
A measure of decency has, and must be, set. Along with that comes atonement.
When a man goes too far the onus can never be on the woman to remove herself from the situation, but for him to extend her the dignity she rightly deserves – that men expect.
The fall from grace can seem deep, but this will never be as far as the lack of respect denied to those they targeted.