On Saturday morning, we were in a note-taking frenzy when US Professor Anita Hill participated in a Q&A with Trauma Cleaner author and legal academic Sarah Krasnostein. The session was part of this year’s international guest-speaker line up for the Melbourne Writer’s Festival (MWF).

In the early ’90s, US. Professor Anita Hill broke new ground when she testified against the then US Supreme Court Justice nominee, Clarence Thomas. If her courageous testimony rocked the boat, its wake – the #metoo movement ­– ­was a tidal wave.

However, with findings such as the recent Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces that­ 63% of female parliamentarians have experienced sexual harassment, the work is far from done. As Prof. Hill says in her new book, Believing, “[w]e must acknowledge that gender violence is systemic and accept that the familiar solutions we’ve been offered to end the scourge are inadequate”. It’s a big goal, which made it the perfect inclusion for this year’s MWF, with the festival’s overarching theme of ambition.

With that in mind, here are our top three takeaways to help employers think more progressively about workplace harassment:

Stop denying it
Understandably, employers are shy of reputational damage. Traditionally, companies have been at pains to avoid issues like sexual harassment coming to light for that very reason. In short, denial runs deep. However, as Prof. Hill noted, the flip side is that “leaders need to understand that everyone is being harmed by these behaviours”.

Plus, the public’s expectations have changed radically in recent years. These days, organisations are more likely to be praised for copping criticism on the chin, expressing genuine regret, and changing, than sweeping it under the carpet. A good example of this type of response is Collingwood FC’s “significant and genuine progress” one year on from the independent review of systemic racism in the club.

Cultivate an environment where people can share their stories
Prof. Hill sheeted home the fact that people change their attitudes and behaviours when they connect with a message emotionally. However, in order for that to happen, employees need to feel sufficiently safe to be vulnerable and share their stories. That means employers need to create a culture where people can:

  • report issues of workplace harassment without fear of recrimination
  • be confident that they will be believed; and
  • see that appropriate action is taken in response.

Counter detractors, especially the loud ones
Despite Prof. Hill’s ultimately hopeful message (ie. change is possible), she noted some depressing realities. First, we will never eradicate these issues in their entirety. Secondly, the law doesn’t hold all of the answers. Add to that the potential for a social media “pile on” and things start to look dire. In response, Prof. Hill suggested these two antidotes:

  • give people the “tools to respond”; and
  • provide a clear countervailing voice and message.

Prof. Hill’s latest book is out now through Penguin: Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence (2021).

If you need help with workplace change or harassment, please contact Melissa Scadden or Meg  Crawford on (03) 8621 4500.