For seven months the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and her team investigated the culture in Parliament House, and other commonwealth parliamentary workplaces (CPWs). They interviewed 490 people, read 302 written submissions, studied 935 survey responses, and heard from 1,723 individuals and 33 organisations.
What did we learn from the resulting 456-page report?
1. Lots of shocking statistics
More than half the people (51%) currently working in parliament had experienced at least one incident of bullying, sexual harassment or actual or attempted sexual assault, while 77% had experienced, witnessed or heard about such behaviour. Let’s break those stats down a bit.
Thirty-seven per cent of people experienced bullying. One participant told the review: “Frequently, like at least every week, the advice was go and cry in the toilet so that nobody can see you, because that’s what it’s like up here.”
3. Sexual harassment
Thirty-three per cent experienced some form of sexual harassment. “Aspiring male politicians who thought nothing of, in one case, picking you up, kissing you on the lips, lifting you up, touching you, pats on the bottom, comments about appearance, you know, the usual ... the culture allowed it,” the review heard.
4. Sexual assault
About 1% of participants had experienced actual or attempted sexual assault. According to one: “The MP sitting beside me leaned over … thinking he wanted to tell me something, I leaned in. He grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. The others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating.”
Women experienced sexual harassment at a higher rate, bullying at a higher rate, and actual and attempted sexual assault at a higher rate. (And those who identify as LGBTIQ+ experienced sexual harassment at a higher rate than people who identify as heterosexual or who preferred not to say. First Nations people and others from marginalised communities were also more at risk.)
As for those doing the bullying, harassing and assaulting, they tended to be more senior, and women were more likely to bully while men were more likely to perpetrate sexual harassment.
6. Gender inequality
Gender balance matters, and gender inequality is a driver of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.
One participant said: “It is a man’s world and you are reminded of it every day thanks to the looks up and down you get, to the representation in the parliamentary chambers, to the preferential treatment politicians give senior male journalists.”
7. Power matters
And in the parliament workplace, that power works in all sorts of ways. Top down, of course, but sideways and upwards as well. One parliamentarian told the commission that having a big profile makes you a big target. “The staff work in the environment and they know that. All they have to do is threaten to take it to the media.”
8. The impact
Unsurprisingly, incidents affected people’s mental health. The review heard from one person about the people they knew. “One tried to commit suicide, another admitted themselves into a mental facility. I know three women [who worked in CPWs] that are still seeing psychologists. One had a marriage breakdown, and one has completely dislocated with her children as a result of the direct influence of that member of parliament … I will never work in a political office again, it’s not worth it,” the participant said.
9. The lack of reporting
Only half the people who were involved knew how to make a report or complaint. And even if they know how to, most said they wouldn’t report it.
Only 11% of people who experienced sexual harassment reported it, because they thought it wasn’t serious enough, or that people would think they were overreacting.
Just 32% of people who experienced bullying reported it, as they thought nothing would be done or it would damage their reputation or career.
The review recommends a range of new standards and codes of conduct to help address this.
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10. The lifestyle
Throughout its work the review heard about the “high pressure” and “win at all costs” work environment in parliament. “Participants also identified a range of factors that create both physical and psychosocial risks, such as a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture, with high levels of stress, long and irregular hours, extensive travel and regular alcohol use,” the report found.
We also learned that, despite the volume of information the commission had to deal with, it apparently remains optimistic that the culture can be changed, concluding that: “An opportunity exists for leaders not only to set the standard, but to set in motion a program of lasting reform.”