Marie Claire Australia
Last year, a post-graduate student wrote to Christine Holgate and asked her to convey some words that were important to her. “I said, safety, respect and equality,” explains the former Australia Post boss. “Because I was unsafe and grossly disrespected, and through a process I got safer and was supported.”
Despite the trauma it caused her, Holgate stands by her decision to speak out against the public vilification she received from Prime Minister Scott Morrison for rewarding four of her executives with Cartier watches. “If you accept bullying you’re giving other people the right to do it again,” she says. “I realised speaking up was not just important for me but for so many who haven’t been able to.”
Holgate was left suicidal by the humiliation she endured, and the subsequent media firestorm. “They depicted me as a prostitute, and my family saw that,” she says. “What happened to me was workplace bullying, and I can’t help but believe that if I were a man it wouldn’t have happened.” (Morrison has denied any wrongdoing.)
Now CEO of Toll Global Express, Holgate is passionate about workplace safety and equality – expressing disbelief that not one female CEO was appointed to the ASX top 200 listed companies in 2020-’21.
She believes every recommendation made in the Respect@Work report should be implemented, most notably the obligation of employers to take responsibility for creating safe environments for their workforce. “Many women who suffer harassment, abuse or discrimination can’t afford to take on a lawyer or a large organisation, so they don’t speak up,” she explains. “And that’s incredibly sad. I think everybody has the right to go to work and return home safely.”
“My sense is that this had been building,” Jenkins tells marie claire. “What’s happened in the past few years is the result of a build-up over many, many years.”
So how did we get here? And what’s needed now to secure long-overdue, revolutionary change?
The origins of this watershed moment date back to 2017, when the Harvey Weinstein scandal prompted the global rallying cry #MeToo. In the days after the movement went viral, Jenkins knew the time was right to act. “That was the point when I went to [former minister for women] Kelly O’Dwyer and said, ‘Could we do a national inquiry?’ because I’d been doing sexual harassment cases for 20 years,” she said.
A world first, the sexual harassment inquiry came to be known as Respect@ Work, and drew on 460 submissions from legal services, unions, women’s services, academic experts and, most importantly, victims. It was underpinned by a fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, which, worryingly, indicated that rates of sexual harassment had increased from one in four people when the survey was last conducted in 2012 to one in three in 2018. The sense of urgency and the mandate for change was clear.
So when the Respect@Work report was released in early 2020, expectations were high. Described as “revolutionary”, it made 55 recommendations covering everything from a more robust legal and regulatory framework to a more holistic support system for survivors. Most importantly, the report called for a “positive duty” on employers to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place.
Billed a game changer, this positive duty would take the burden off victims (who, as the past few years have demonstrated, pay a high price for coming forward) and place it firmly on the shoulders of employers to take proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment and assault from happening in the first place. In other words, the decades old, tired game of whack-a-mole that women have been forced to play with sexual harassment and assault at work would come to an end. Responsibility for tackling this scourge would no longer rest solely on the shoulders of women, whose only option has been to combat it via expensive and emotionally gruelling individual legal action. Employers would have a legal duty to prevent it from happening, and Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner would be given