The women of Australia are fed-up and furious. They are tired of the sexism, disrespect and sexual violence that permeates our most powerful institutions and plays out in our workplaces and homes.

The grassroots March4Justice movement emerged as a clarion call for change, showcasing this discontent loud and clear. It culminated in more than 110,000 women and their allies taking to the streets across the nation on 15 March 2021.

The movement has united people across political divides and sectors, demonstrating that gendered violence and inequality is a whole-of-society issue, demanding a whole-of-society response. 

The research and insights of ANU experts can help shape this response. They can shape the way we transform systems and attitudes, using the most robust evidence and analysis to better support women’s safety and opportunities.

From warning against the misguided use of technology to communicate consent, to better understanding the needs of Indigenous people impacted by sexual and family violence, ANU women are offering ways forward for the nation at this critical crossroads. 

Here’s what they have to say: 

Parliament House, Canberra. Photo: Daniel Morton/Unsplash

A perilous place: Challenges for women in parliament

Gender and power are at play in problems plaguing parliament, Dr Maria Maley writes.

Bullying and sexual harassment in political offices has long been tolerated and concealed. But Brittany Higgins’ allegation she was raped in a minister’s office has cast a spotlight on the working lives of staffers.

This spotlight is unlikely to dim any time soon with the emergence of the March4Justice movement and the Human Rights Commission’s Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces, bringing sustained pressure for change. 

As a researcher of political staff, I am trying to understand why this behaviour exists within the working culture of parliament and what needs to be done about it. There is clearly a gender dynamic at play. Many advisers are young and female, vulnerable and powerless.  

When I researched a group of federal political advisers working from 2010-17, I found almost 50 per cent of them were recruited in their 20s. More than 75 per cent were recruited before they turned 40. More than 90 per cent of administrative staff in the study were female, and 40 per cent of the political and policy advisers were women. 

The combination of long hours, being away from home and the constant presence of alcohol can create a risky work environment for staffers. Some described to me a hard-drinking culture, in which bar hopping was seen as a way to wind down and deal with stressful days. One staffer said she kept drinking on some nights to ensure her boss stayed out of trouble, helping him get into a taxi at the end of the night.

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Dr Maria Maley. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

This troubled culture can affect men too.

Another former staffer claimed the MP he worked for would begin drinking mid-afternoon on most days and when drunk, staff would have to deal with unwanted sexual advances. Repeatedly.

This tells us the problems are deeply related to power relations. An MP, senator or minister has almost untrammelled power over their staff and few restraints on their conduct.

One woman wrote to me that “the minister’s groping was awful but his bullying and abuse of power was much worse.

His chiefs of staff were dedicated to ensuring no one else found out”. When they experience sexual harassment or bullying at work, political staffers face high stakes decisions about making complaints. While staffers are covered by the Fair Work Act, invoking the workplace protections that exist for them is perilous. If they make a formal complaint, they could be sacked or seen as a troublemaker, jeopardising future work for their parties. 

Breaches of the standards of conduct for ministerial staff are policed internally by senior figures in the government, the members of the shadowy Government Staffing Committee, and there is little accountability around this process. Staffers are also not confident about raising these issues through party organisations.

Those I interviewed said they believe the party’s priority is always its reputation, the likelihood of MPs being re-elected and factional power plays. The wellbeing of staff is seen as collateral damage. Loyalty to the politician and party is a paramount condition of staffers’ employment, but tolerating bad behaviour can mean it becomes normalised.

Many of the problems lie in the framework of staffers’ employment and can be fixed — but only with leadership from the top. We need independent mechanisms for handling complaints, job protections for staff who speak up and a front-foot commitment to maintaining a safe workplace. A safe workplace means investigating and disciplining parliamentarians and staffers when serious allegations are made in a timely and transparent way.  

Designing new frameworks to protect staffers will not be easy. Political will is needed to make changes. This can only come from the prime minister himself and other party leaders at the top. 

Dr Maria Maley is a Senior Lecturer at the ANU School of Politics and International Relations.

Circles of healing: Storytelling and culture in Indigenous recovery

Storytelling and connection to culture can provide roadmaps to recovery for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men impacted by sexual and family violence, Tanya Keed writes.

The March4Justice was a long time coming and an awesome breaking of the silence. We must give women a platform and safe space to share their stories of trauma, and this public movement is one way to do that.

But what I’ve learnt from more than 20 years as an Aboriginal social worker responding to trauma, and my own lived experience, is we must create safe spaces for storytelling every day — and follow through with services to cope with the demand of disclosure.

Aboriginal women need culturally appropriate, properly funded, hands-on services after disclosures of sexual and family violence. I don’t believe in tokenism, so having one Indigenous worker is not enough — services must be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander controlled. Without grassroots community control, the services will not be culturally safe and flexible enough to meet the many different around-the-clock needs of Aboriginal women.  

I am a proud Dunghutti woman from Kempsey on the north coast of New South Wales. I have a history of trauma and am a survivor of family violence. My totem is the praying mantis, which has a fighting spirit like I do. As a social worker, every day I hear the voices of our women, disclosing their experiences of violence and trauma. These disclosures come with great shame. But this shame is not just experienced by women — Indigenous men carry the burden of shame and trauma too.  

“We are not often given the time and space to recover — by telling our own stories, in our own words, and being listened to without judgement.”

Tanya Keed

My 36-year-old son is also a survivor of family violence experienced as a child. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men grew up in crowded houses and on missions, surrounded by violence.

But there is very little focus on the impact of this violence on Indigenous men, and not many culturally appropriate services out there supporting them. That’s why I started yarning circle programs for men in prison in Canberra and following their release back into the community.

My 36-year-old son is also a survivor of family violence experienced as a child. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men grew up in crowded houses and on missions, surrounded by violence. But there is very little focus on the impact of this violence on Indigenous men, and not many culturally appropriate services out there supporting them. That’s why I started yarning circle programs for men in prison in Canberra and following their release back into the community. These men, who were once warriors, have lost their identities, songlines and voices as a result of violence and trauma.

Connection to culture is an essential part of the healing journey that has not typically been included in prison rehabilitation programs or drug and alcohol services. Culture can help provide a roadmap to recovery and return our missing men to their communities and families. Often these men have lost their relationships with family because of their violent behaviour and drug abuse — and the shame that comes with that. 

Storytelling and yarning are also really important in the healing journey for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We are not often given the time and space to recover — by telling our own stories, in our own words, and being listened to without judgement. It took a long time for me as an Aboriginal person to heal. To heal I had to be allowed to tell my story in a safe space.  

Tanya Keed. Photo: Jack Fox/ANU

Yarning circles are a type of narrative therapy. It’s a privilege to be sitting with these men in the prison as they tell their stories for the first time. And it’s amazing how their stories can be changed over weeks and months — from stories of trauma and shame, to stories where they remember their culture, feel proud and have hope for the future. These yarning circles are really circles of recovery.

The research I’m now doing at ANU has been 20 years in the making and is dedicated to my son and his experiences. It will draw on work with my community, in corrective services, the ACT Human Rights Commission, Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, as well as with child, youth and family services. Healing trauma in our incarcerated men is just part of a very complex picture, and there are many other issues that must be addressed to end sexual and family violence in Indigenous communities.

But I hope my work and research will create more support for proper services for Aboriginal men — services that listen to their stories, told in their way. It’s an honour for me to hear these stories and be part of journeys of healing.

Tanya Keed is a proud Dunghutti woman, community leader and allied health professional. She has a Bachelor of Social Work, and qualifications in trauma and community development. Keed is currently undertaking a Master of Philosophy at ANU, majoring in Indigenous Studies.

Photo: Rob Hampson/Unsplash

There’s no app for that

Mobile apps cannot communicate the complexities of consent and counteract sexual violence, Professor Kate Henne writes.

Following the March4Justice protests, New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller encouraged the use of digital applications or ‘apps’ as part of the response to sexual violence, suggesting they could record positive consent. He received widespread criticism for misunderstanding the problem; counteracting sexual violence requires addressing unequal power relations, not just making sure consent is clearly communicated. 

While Fuller’s recommendation is a flawed response, it reflects a growing trend of using mobile apps to counter forms of gender-based violence, including sexual assault and harassment. Most of these technologies are designed to provide victim-survivors with emergency assistance and an easy means to document and report their experience to authorities.

Many apps digitally capture and transmit data about individual incidents, such as descriptions of abuse, the location and time of its occurrence, perpetrator characteristics and images that could serve as evidence.  

Although proponents have framed these technologies as tools that empower women, our analysis of a wide range of digital apps and artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots shows that the promise of data-enabled solutions is not without peril.

There are significant limitations when using these apps, including device failure, challenges accessing recommended emergency services, and the fact that data collected does not always create clear or useful evidence.

The data can be used in ways victim-survivors may not anticipate, including against their wishes or even against their claims. These apps can restrict reporting options by channelling data to authorities for the purpose of punishment rather than offering other possibilities.

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Professor Kate Henne. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

These technologies do not overcome long-standing criticisms that legal responses to gender-based violence often fail to support victim-survivors, especially those who experience discrimination related to disability, ethnicity, race or sexuality.

They can even create additional risks. They collect, track and analyse users’ Internet activity and personal data, which is often stored by a third party or the app’s parent company.

The data is then processed and aggregated for key users — such as investigators, lawyers and police — and often for a variety of purposes beyond the reported incident.

This data-driven model of service provision creates an unequal exchange that is skewed towards technology companies and their partners. Further, research indicates the data ecosystems that these apps rely on have been exploited, putting victim-survivors’ information at risk.  

These technologies are not neutral communications devices. They reflect design choices shaped by societal perceptions, including problematic assumptions about the causes of and solutions to sexual violence. For example, their features often reify racist rape myths, such as ‘stranger danger’, even though most sexual assaults are committed by people who victim-survivors already know. In addition, they put the onus on victim-survivors to initiate and manage the process of responding to sexual violence, which subjects them — not perpetrators — to scrutiny when their reports are assessed by authorities.

While mobile apps may make it easier for some victim-survivors to document and report instances of sexual assault or harassment, they are not a comprehensive response to sexual violence.

More data does not necessarily mean social change or better institutional responses. Without more radical corrective strategies and stronger protections for victim-survivors, these apps can exacerbate harms by promoting technology as a viable fix for complex social issues.

Professor Kate Henne is Director of the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance. This article is based on research by Henne and ANU PhD scholar Jenna Imad Harb, with Dr Renee Shelby from Northwestern University.  

The high price of justice

For most survivors, pursuing a sexual harassment complaint in court is an insurmountable task, Madeleine Castles writes.

We know that most survivors of sexual harassment will never make the headlines. But many people would be surprised to learn that even fewer will see the inside of a courtroom. The #MeToo and March4Justice movements have undeniably shifted our social and political agenda, but have they resonated in our civil justice system? When the crowds disperse, and our attention shifts, can our anti-discrimination law framework step up to the plate? 

The case of Rebecca Richardson provides valuable insight.

In 2008, Richardson was sexually harassed by a colleague at work. She sued her employer, Oracle, and at first instance was awarded $18,000 in general non-economic damages. Despite her victory, Richardson appealed, arguing the award was not sufficient compensation.

In 2014, the Full Federal Court agreed, holding that $18,000 was “manifestly inadequate” and awarded Richardson $100,000. In her leading judgment, Justice Kenny emphasised that awards of damages should recognise the community’s “deeper appreciation of the experience of hurt and humiliation that victims of sexual harassment experience”. 

Madeleine Castles. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Six years, and a global movement later, we wanted to find out what impact, if any, Richardson v Oracle Corporation Australia had on sexual harassment litigation in Australia. We analysed every case since 2014 to cite Richardson and spoke to some of Australia’s most distinguished legal practitioners working in the discrimination field.  Our research showed that since 2014, the average award of damages in sexual harassment cases was $79,333, a fourfold increase on pre-Richardson levels.  

Despite this positive increase, for most survivors pursuing a sexual harassment complaint to the courts is an insurmountable task. First and foremost, the costs of litigation are often prohibitive. A complainant’s legal fees alone can often eclipse any compensation awarded, especially if litigation is protracted. Additionally, the Sex Discrimination Act does not contain a costs protection, so a complainant bears the risk of having to pay their harasser’s legal costs.  

This was aptly demonstrated in Richardson. Despite being successful at first instance, Richardson was ordered to pay Oracle’s costs from mid-litigation onwards, on top of her own legal costs, which were estimated to be more than $200,000. Justice Buchanan emphasised that this “devastating” cost was a very high price to pay for her victory.  

“Despite the momentum created by the #MeToo movement, the legal structures underpinning our discrimination law system have not changed.”

Madeleine Castles

It is no surprise then that since 2014, only nine sexual harassment cases citing Richardson made it to a courtroom. Most survivors will choose to settle early and settle confidentially. Non-disclosure agreements are ubiquitous in settlements, which prevent survivors from speaking out about their experiences. This, combined with the limited public scrutiny of the courts, means that the true breadth and depth of sexual harassment remain hidden behind closed doors.  

In addition, the burden of bringing a sexual harassment claim rests on the shoulders of an individual complainant, who alone must bear the enormous financial, mental health, career, and reputational costs. The sexual harassment experienced by Richardson occurred in 2008. The Full Federal Court did not hand down its decision until 2014. While Richardson was ultimately victorious, did that justify the enormous personal cost? In our interview, Maurice Blackburn partner Josh Borstein was definitive: “That’s six years. One hundred thousand dollars is not worth six years.”  

Despite the momentum created by the #MeToo movement, the legal structures underpinning our discrimination law system have not changed. As leading Australian human rights barrister Kate Eastman quipped, there is “a very large gap between the social movement and how the law actually works”. Without further law reform, our civil law system will remain an ill-equipped and inaccessible forum to bring about systemic change.  

Our civil legal system does have a legitimate, if narrow, role to play in contributing to change. But it is not an antidote to Australia’s sexual harassment problem, a problem that is inherently linked to inequality, gender, power, and hierarchy. How we address this problem will be determined not by our courts, but by our workplaces, our parliaments and by every person who raises their voice in protest.  

“The lawyers and the courts apply band-aids,” Bornstein said in our research interview. “Power is redistributed by blood, sweat, tears, struggle, polemicists, protestors, fights. It is ugly, brutal and awful. It is not about going and having tea and scones in corporate boardrooms. We did not get the eight-hour day or the women’s vote or superannuation through tea and scones.” 

The March4Justice protests may deliver on the promise of change where our courts have failed.

Madeleine Castles is a final year Bachelor of Laws (Honours) student at the ANU College of Law.

Dr Blair Williams. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

Sexist reporting a roadblock to real equality

The spotlight on sexual assault allegations sustained by women journalists is a big stride forward. But it is set against a history of deeply sexist reporting, especially on women leaders, Dr Blair Williams writes.

Mainstream media has played a pivotal role in uncovering the allegations that ignited the March4Justice movement, with women journalists leading the charge.

From Samantha Maiden breaking the Brittany Higgins allegation and Louise Milligan resurfacing historic rape allegations against a Member of Parliament, to Laura Tingle, Leigh Sales, Karen Middleton, Lisa Wilkinson, Katharine Murphy, Amy Remeikis, Tracy Grimshaw and others, ongoing reporting on these issues is sustaining pressure for change.

However, too often media reporting on women in politics contributes to sexism and sexual harassment. Research has identified how women politicians, especially leaders, have experienced gendered and often sexist coverage, in which their gender, appearance and family life are emphasised as a point of criticism. Through my own doctoral research, I found that the mainstream press often delegitimised and trivialised women political leaders with sexist coverage to uphold gender norms and stereotypes. 

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UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1983. Photo: Nationaal Archief (CC0 1.0)

My research looked at Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, Julia Gillard, Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark, analysing a representative sample of more than 1,000 mainstream newspaper articles published during the first three weeks of each leader’s prime ministerial term.

Surprisingly, I discovered that while women’s rights and political representation have improved, media reporting has become markedly worse over time.

Even though Margaret Thatcher ruled in a period when there were far fewer women in politics, only 34 per cent of newspaper articles emphasised her feminine traits, while these traits were in focus in 51 per cent of articles about Julia Gillard and 52 per cent for Theresa May.

This kind of sexist coverage can have a ‘bystander effect’ on women in all walks of life, dampening their political aspirations and chances of achieving equal representation.

Despite the momentous recent change in media coverage of women, by women, which ushered in the March4Justice, certain corners of the press continue to devalue and undermine women who call out sexism and abuse.

Numerous articles published in News Corp papers made light of the situation and attacked Higgins as well as a deceased accuser in the alleged sexual assault case involving an MP, known only by her first name Kate, for speaking out about their experiences. High-profile male journalists authored articles supporting Kate’s alleged perpetrator, without disclosing that they were friends with the accused. The Australian revealed previously unpublished segments of Kate’s diary entries, seeking to poke holes in her story.

Just weeks after the March4Justice protests, an Australian Financial Review article took aim at numerous women journalists for bringing these issues to light, arguing their impassioned reportage was not journalism but simply “angry coverage that often strayed into unapologetic activism”. It was heartening to see many people on Twitter, including male journalists, decry this view.

The March4Justice movement demonstrates that media has a crucial role to play in critiquing sexist behaviour and exposing sexual violence. However, if sections of the press keep digging in their heels with sexist tropes and denialism, they will continue to exacerbate gender inequality.

While the responsibility for changing the media representation of women mainly falls on journalists and organisations, consumers also need to keep up the pressure for real and lasting change.

Dr Blair Williams is a Research Fellow at the ANU Global Institute for Women’s Leadership.

Top image: Women’s March4Justice in Melbourne, 15 March 2020. Photo: Matt Hrkac/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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