Remember the shocking balls-up at investment company AMP Capital, when a bloke who sexually harassed a colleague got a promotion and the woman who'd been sexually harassed lost her job?
That case was eventually fixed to a small degree when the bloke was demoted. The woman is still suffering.
But there are ongoing impacts from the story of Boe Pahari and the tireless Julia Szlakowski.
Today one superannuation peak body has released a new report on how big business deals with sexual harassment at work. The answer is very badly, with only one in five companies acknowledging that sexual harassment is a board responsibility. I remember talking to Louise Davidson, the chief executive of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (the very peak body which has released this report and whose members oversee more than $1 trillion in assets) a few months back. Davidson said the case at AMP was shocking and likely to be generalisable across industry: "It's time for boards to make sure they have their houses in order. There is no point [in boards] having gender equality policies in place if boards don't nail sexual harassment in their workplaces."
The AMP case and others like it led ACSI to commit to a massive research project, in partnership with the Australian Human Rights Commission's sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, to see where the gaps are in accountability around sexual harassment policies and procedures; and whether boards get the information they need to make substantive change.
It turns out that there aren't gaps. There is an abyss in understanding accountability, a yawning chasm when it comes to who is meant to do what and when. The report was supposed to be a survey of all the ASX 200 companies, every company from A to Z, from the a2 Milk Company Ltd through to Zimplats Holdings. In between you will find all the big banks, the big telcos, health companies and airlines and more. These are the names which run the Australian economy. Just over half, 118, bothered to respond.
ACSI's purpose was to discover how sexual harassment is reported, managed, and "ultimately prevented" in the businesses of the ASX 200. That bit made me laugh. Is there a company in the country that hasn't buggered up a sexual harassment complaint? Is there a single big company in the country which has had no sexual harassment complaints? I'm imagining that some small businesses with good culture and values are OK.
But the short story is that in big business, most companies have no clue. Or they leave it in the hands of senior executives such as the chief executive or the head of Human Resources (a misnomer - that part of any organisation should always be called Company Resources, because its goal is to protect the reputation of the company and not to protect or support the poor person who's been used and abused, except to support them out the door). Fewer than half of respondents indicated sexual harassment was a regular board agenda item. Instead, it only makes it on to the list when there is some chaos such as the AMP Capital debacle.
In other words, boards react. They don't try to prevent or take formative action. To underscore that basic lack of interest in the problem, the majority of respondents indicated they tied the executive team's remuneration and performance incentives with culture and conduct standards, but less than one-third reported that they tied incentive payments, at least partially, to preventing sexual harassment. So I have no idea what kinds of culture and conduct they are talking about. Washing up in the tearoom? Or just the culture of profitability?
On top of all this, when it comes to information sharing, there isn't much. I guess executives are terrified of another humiliating public episode. Less than one-third of the companies publicly reported information relevant to sexual harassment, as recommended by the ASX corporate governance principles, and 14 per cent of respondents did not report externally at all. Kill me. No wonder we are struggling to stamp this out.
But the president of Chief Executive Women, Sam Mostyn, sees a glimmer of hope amid the hopelessness.
"The report highlights that many companies that took part in the research don't yet have proper governance and reporting mechanisms in place to properly prevent and mitigate risk when it comes to sexual harassment - we see implementing these processes as a real opportunity for businesses of all sizes," she says.
Whenever I hear about yet another country claiming it will get to net-zero emissions, I feel wistful. I mean, it's a glorious idea, this goal of doing less harm to our environment and, with the exception of Australia and a handful of others, folks are lining up to sign up. Companies are doing it too, in some instances because shareholders have put pressure on the board. But here's the reason I'm wistful: there is more to social responsibility than the environment, much more. And you'd think the big brains who run Australia's top 200 companies would be all over that. But no. They aren't.
We have had this kind of "Ohmigod I don't know what to do" approach before. You will recall that the banks knew - for years - that they had a problem with money laundering. They knew for years and years that money was going to fund child sexual abuse offshore. And even though they knew, they did nothing until they were forced to.
Now this report might just be the weapon needed to force ASX members to have company responses to sexual harassment, which costs us $3.8 billion annually, as part of its listing requirements. Jenkins recommended that back in 2020 in her Respect @ Work report, the one more or less ignored by the government until the allegations made by Brittany Higgins. The government's response has been underwhelming. Maybe the ASX will have to show leadership where none is forthcoming from our political leaders.
- Jenna Price is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.