April 28, 2020 / Patty Kinnersly, CEO
Today marks the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, which focuses on how we can improve workplace health and safety practices to prevent injury and ultimately save lives.
While the theme this year is Stop the pandemic: Safety and health at work can save lives, and we know the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on women, we need to keep sight of the other ways in which women are not safe at work.
For when people think of workplace health and safety, they often think of hazards that could result in a physical injury such as chemical or trip hazards, non-ergonomic chairs or heavy lifting requirements.
Although physical safety is vitally important, being safe at work isn’t just about being able to go home uninjured. It is also about feeling respected, valued and treated equally.
Unfortunately for women, respect and equal treatment in the workplace is not always a given.
Our workforce as a whole is highly gender segregated, with women concentrated in sectors, industries and jobs that are less valued and lower paid.
This includes jobs whose essential value to society is being highlighted by the current COVID-19 crisis, such as childcare, aged care, teaching, health care and cleaning; jobs in such ‘feminised industries’ that are deserving of far greater respect and remuneration.
Meanwhile, many women don’t feel safe at work. A 2018 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that almost one in two (39 per cent) of women have experienced sexual violence in Australian workplaces.
The landmark report on the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, which was released in March after an 18-month inquiry, makes 55 recommendations to address the fact that our systems that don’t adequately respond to allegations of sexual harassment.
Addressing sexual harassment in Australian workplaces requires a holistic approach, including measures to stop it before it starts, reforming legal responses and improving systems to better support survivors.
Unfortunately, women are still less likely to be at the helm of a company or represented in senior management.
According to The Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the gender pay gap currently sits at 13.9 per cent, with women’s weekly earnings $242.90 less than men’s.
Our current parental leave policy settings compounded with rigid gender roles mean that far more women than men take time out of the workforce to raise children and do the lion’s share of caregiving tasks.
For all these reasons, women’s average lifetime earnings are far lower than men’s and retired women are more likely to live in poverty than men.
With the addition of racism and the continued effects of colonisation, the ‘traditional workplace’ can often be an unsafe place for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
This is also true for women with disability, women from different backgrounds, races, religions, classes and sexual orientations who can sometimes experience multiple layers of oppression in the workplace depending on the context.
Strengthening efforts to address these kinds of issues across all our workplaces will not only help ensure the safety and health of Australian women at work, it will also encourage more women from all backgrounds to enter the workforce, helping to boost the Australian economy in a time of great need.
We know from the evidence that gender inequality is a key driver of violence against women, and that we can ultimately prevent this violence if we challenge the structures, norms and practices that underpin it – including in workplaces.
The good news for workplaces is that, just like improving health and safety is good for business, gender equality is also good for improving their bottom line.
The annual Gender Equality at Work report found that workplace gender equality is associated with improved national productivity and economic growth, increased organisational performance and an enhanced ability of companies to attract talent and retain employees.
It also found that women’s earning capacity, workforce participation and economic opportunity are vital to help future proof the Australian economy.
So how do workplaces help?
Our Watch’s Workplace Equality and Respect gives workplaces freely available standards, processes and tools to identify and reform organisational practices that devalue, exclude or marginalise women and to support an increase in the number of female leaders.
So today on World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we need to think about the big picture, to commit to fixing the system that not only threatens the health and safety of women but denies them equal access to power, resources and opportunities.
A system that allows harassment and gender inequality to harm female employees and that suppresses economic opportunity at all levels.
Implementing these standards in all Australian workplaces is will help accelerate progress towards an Australia free of violence against women; where women are not only safe, but respected, valued and treated equally.
*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:
“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.”
To access guides for reporting about violence against women and their children, visit Media Making Change.
Our Watch leads Australia’s work to stop violence against women and their children before it starts. The organisation was created to drive nation-wide change in the structures, norms and practices that lead to violence against women and children.