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Workplaces have an important role to play in addressing the practices, attitudes, norms and behaviours that underpin and create violence against women and their children.

Whether you are an individual staff member or a senior leader, you can help address the issue of violence against women and their children in your workplace. Our Watch has developed Workplace Equality and Respect to help workplaces create an Australia where women are safe, equal and valued.

The size of the problem 

Violence against women, including domestic violence, family violence, intimate partner violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment, affects many Australians in paid work.

Almost two-thirds of women who experience violence at home have paid jobs. That’s 800,000 women in Australia.1

While women experience higher rates of sexual harassment at work and both women and men are more likely to be harassed by a male,2 men can also be victims of this form of violence.

Workplace sexual harassment is harmful not only to those who experience it but also to their colleagues who hear about or witness it.

How does this problem affect workplaces?

Violence against women affects workplaces in many costly ways, such as:
  • increasing absenteeism (employees not coming to work)
  • increasing presenteeism (employees coming to work sick)
  • increasing staff turnover (employees leaving their jobs)
  • decreasing productivity
  • decreased job satisfaction and staff morale.3
The combined health, administration and social welfare costs of violence against women have been estimated to be $21.7 billion a year, with projections suggesting that if no further action is taken to prevent violence against women, costs will accumulate to $323.4 billion over a thirty year period from 2014-15 to 2044-45.4 

How can workplaces address violence against women and their children? 

To address the issue of violence against women and their children, workplaces have a number of different roles to play:
  1. Supporting employees who are or have been victims of violence that occurs out of the workplace, in their private lives (most commonly domestic or family violence and sexual assault).
  2. Taking action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace.
  3. Addressing the underlying causes of violence against women by promoting gender equality in the workplace.
  4. Creating a culture where employees feel confident to take bystander action if they see or hear about sexism, harassment, discrimination or violence in the workplace.

What drives violence against women?

Violence against women is serious and prevalent. It is primarily driven by gender inequality, and reinforced or exacerbated by a number of other factors. 
Gender inequality is a situation in which women and men do not have equal power, resources or opportunities, and that their voices, ideas and work are not valued equally by society. 

Gender inequality provides the underlying social conditions for violence against women. It operates at many levels – from social and cultural norms (the dominant ideas about men and women in a society), to economic structures (such as the pay gap between men and women), to organisational, community, family and relationship practices. 

This broad social context of gender inequality produces a number of specific gendered drivers of violence against women. The strongest of these are:

  • Condoning of violence against women – for example, the idea that it is excusable for men to use violence in certain circumstances, that they cannot always be held responsible, or that some kinds of violence (such as sexual harassment) are not serious.
  • Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public life and relationships – for example, the idea that men should be the head of the household and decide how money is spent.
  • Rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity – the idea that women and men and girls and boys should act in certain ways or fulfill certain roles.
  • Disrespect towards women and male peer relations that emphasise aggression – for example, the way some groups of men ‘bond’ or seek to prove their ‘manhood’ or ‘masculinity’ through actions that are disrespectful, hostile or aggressive towards women.

While the broad social context of gender inequality provides the underlying conditions and drivers of violence against women, a number of reinforcing factors can contribute to or exacerbate this violence. These include:

  • The condoning of violence in general, which sees violence normalised or valorised as an expression of masculinity.
  • Experience of or exposure to violence (such as in childhood, or in communities with high levels of violence).
  • Situations in which the social norms associated with alcohol use weaken positive social behavior (for example drinking cultures that emphasise male conquest and aggression and social norms and attitudes that position men’s drinking as an excuse for violence, or women’s drinking as a form of victim blaming).
  • Socio-economic inequality and discrimination.
  • The ‘backlash’ that sometimes comes from men when their existing male privilege or status is challenged.

Violence against women is preventable, but such a significant social problem needs a large scale response, and we must all work together to achieve the social transformation required.

To prevent violence against women we need to promote gender equality in public and private life, particularly through the following actions:

  • Challenge condoning of violence against women.
  • Promote women’s independence and decision-making in public life and relationships.
  • Challenge gender stereotypes and roles.
  • Strengthen positive, equal and respectful relationships between and among women and men, girls and boys.

Prevention efforts will be strengthened if these essential actions are supported by actions address the reinforcing factors, such as:

  • Challenging the normalisation of violence as an expression of masculinity or male dominance.
  • Preventing exposure to violence and supporting those affected to reduce its consequences.
  • Addressing social norms relating to alcohol particularly by challenging drinking cultures that emphasise male conquest and aggression or excuse men’s violence.
  • Reducing backlash by developing positive ways to engage men and boys in gender equality, building relationship skills and social connection and challenging restrictive and rigid gender roles and identities for both men and women.

What can you do to promote safe, equal and respectful workplaces?

1.    Support employees who are or have been victims of violence that occurs outside of work:

  • Develop a workplace ‘responding to family violence’ policy in consultation with a local family violence service.
  • Train staff who have management responsibilities on how to respond to disclosures of violence and support an employee who may be experiencing violence to help them stay at work.

2.    Take action to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Ensure all staff understand what sexual harassment looks like and what harassing behaviours are most common.
  • Actively promote and implement policies around equality opportunity, diversity, sexual harassment and sex discrimination at work.
  • If you see or hear something that makes you think a workmate might be experiencing sexual harassment, tell them you’ve noticed and ask what you can do to help. 

3.    Address the underlying causes of violence against women by promoting gender equality in the workplace:

  • Conduct a gender audit to bring to light the ways in which your organisational policies and practices might be inadvertently having a negative impact on women, men and gender equality.
  • Look at your attitudes towards and expectations of women and men at work. Do you treat men and women differently in the workplace? Do you expect men and women to do different kinds of tasks, like assuming that female staff will organise all the social functions? 
  • Promote flexible work practices at all levels of your organisation, because supporting women and men who have family or other caring responsibilities will have a positive impact on creating an equal and more productive workplace.

4.    Create a culture where employees feel confident to take bystander action:

  • Take reports of discrimination, harassment or violence seriously and actively encourage your staff to bring these issues to your attention.
  • If someone makes a sexist comment or joke at work, say something. You’re probably not the only one who thinks it’s wrong. Let the person know what they said is unacceptable and get the support of your colleagues. 

Create more gender equitable environments

Here are some suggestions from senior executives in Australia about how organisations can take action to create more gender equitable environments:

  • Create a workplace culture where parents and carers thrive. Review your practices to see whether women returning from parental leave continue to develop their careers.
  • Lead on gender reporting. Develop consistent reporting standards to create a more transparent and detailed view of the pipeline and progress of women in your workplace.
  • Ask yourself – If we don’t have a 50/50 split in our organisation, why not? Apply this view across career lifecycles, from recruitment and talent development to committees and panels.
  • End the leadership lottery for women. Actively develop, promote and advance inclusive leaders across your organisation.

Links and resources

Workplace Equality and Respect offers a step-by-step process that enables you to assess your organisation and identify key actions to make lasting change and a suite of freely available tools and resources that help support you to take action.

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency website provides a range of information and practical resources to support workplaces to promote women’s representation and gender equality in the workplace. 

The Safe at Home, Safe at Work project developed a range of resources designed specifically for workplaces to support staff who were victims of violence. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission has developed a number of resources designed to address workplace gender inequality, discrimination and sexual harassment, including:

1. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 2005
2. Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), 2012
3. VicHealth, 2012
4. Price Waterhouse Coopers (2015) ‘A high price to pay: the economic case for preventing violence against women’, report prepared for Our Watch and the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth).