‘Urgent national issue’: Shock levels of sexual harassment in retail sector exposed

Sexual harassment in the retail industry has become an “urgent national issue”, according to new research.

Up to half of women and one in four men working in the sector, which employs almost 10 per cent of all Australians, have been exposed to a range of unwanted behaviors from peers, supervisors and customers in the past five years, researchers report. from the Australian Center for Gender Equality and Inclusion at Work.

“What our new research highlights is the pervasive and systematic experience of sexual harassment in the retail industry,” the centre’s Professor Elizabeth Hill, who co-authored the report, told news.com.au.

“The experience is so widespread that retail workers talk about sexual harassment as just a normal part of working in the industry.”

It’s so normal, in fact, that workers have described the unwanted attention as “basically part of the job.”

The most common form of harassment was sexually suggestive comments and jokes (62 percent), followed by intrusive questions about a worker’s private life or physical appearance (45 percent), and behaviors that were difficult to confront, such as leering, staring, or hovering ( 41 percent).

While actual or attempted rape or sexual assault and sexually graphic images and gifts were reported, these were less common (six and nine percent, respectively).

In 86 percent of cases of sexual harassment in retail, the perpetrator was male; young women were identified as the group most at risk of being at the end.

Professor Rae Cooper, director of the Center and co-author of the report, said this was exacerbated by the “gender-hierarchical” nature of the retail industry.

Professor Cooper told news.com.au: “Men (are) more likely to be in positions of power and authority, women (are) more likely to be in front line, low paid and insecure work.

Industry norms around customer relations and service — such as the idea that “the customer is always right” — also “create a bad workplace dynamic and discourage employees from reporting or taking other action,” she said. It can also enable “bad behavior” by some customers.

Many employees said they were unsure about how to report sexual harassment, while those who did remained dissatisfied with the process – suggesting current policies and training and reporting mechanisms are “not fit for purpose”. said Professor Hill.

“Many workers were unsure of their organisation’s reporting procedures and policies, didn’t know where to find them and often found them difficult to understand,” she said.

“Many had concerns about the confidentiality, integrity and effectiveness of the reporting process and said they lacked confidence in the reporting process due to a lack of timely action, underreporting or rejection of reports, and ineffective or opaque outcomes.”

Professor Cooper said employers have a legal duty to prevent harm to workers from sexual harassment – “regardless of the source”.

It has been since last December Sex Discrimination Act ruled that all employers and persons conducting a business or enterprise are subject to a positive duty to take “reasonable and proportionate steps” to eliminate unlawful sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, as far as possible.

An industry-wide approach to customer harassment is needed, she said, “to keep this workforce safe.”

“We call on retail employers, retail industry associations and retail trade unions to work together to develop unified and coordinated reporting responses; data collection and accurate and risk-informed training for key groups such as very young workers and team leaders,” said Prof. Cooper.

The chief executive of Australia’s National Women’s Safety Research Organization, Tessa Boyd-Caine, echoed this sentiment, describing improved reporting processes as “necessary to ensure victim-survivors feel safe and empowered to come forward”.

“Sexual harassment in retail is common, normalized and harmful,” she said.

“It is part of a wider social environment that enables violence against women and children, so sexual harassment needs to be clearly understood and taken seriously.”

Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra said workplace sexual harassment was a “significant and ongoing concern” for the sector.

“We thank the independent research groups for providing a safe space for

open dialogue. It is now up to the retail sector to take this report, build on it and create

an environment where our staff do not have to come to work in fear of sexual harassment and

violence,” he said.

“This report provides a solid foundation for ways we can better tackle sexual harassment

at work. This will include data-driven strategies and tailoring education for

employees and training and empowering supervisors and managers to respond to sexual

workplace harassment.”

Information about sexual harassment in the workplace and how to make a complaint is available on the Fair Work Ombudsman website.

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