Alicia Vrajlal* talks with one CEO who experienced workplace sexual harassment and doesn’t want other women to feel the same ‘palpable fear’.
Retelling her devastating experience of workplace sexual harassment is utterly painful.
But over two decades since the incident, Deborah Homewood continues sharing her story.
The CEO and managing director of employment provider Max Solutions hopes that speaking out will not only encourage other victims to come forward, but convince organisations to take the issue more seriously.
“Every time I retell the story, the bit that upsets me the most is what happened afterwards,” she said at a recent Diversity Council Australia forum for #IStandForRespect – a campaign where at least 200 Australian business leaders have signed a public pledge against sexual harassment in the workplace.
“How I was made to feel; that palpable fear of losing my job; of not being able to support my daughter.
It’s the feeling of powerlessness that I remember the most.
It begins with the assault and then continues when nothing is done, or you have to deal with the humiliation of a reporting process that does not have care of the victim at the centre of its processes.”
Here, Homewood speaks to Refinery29 Australia about the challenges she faced after reporting her experience to her employer, and what she believes now as a managing director that organisations can do to help eradicate workplace sexual harassment in Australia.
R29: What has been your personal experience relating to workplace sexual harassment?
DH: About 25 years ago, I was in a sales role at an Australian multinational organisation.
They had a function one night and, to tell you the truth, I didn’t want to go.
It meant I had to get a babysitter, which I couldn’t really afford at the time.
But I went along, because I thought it was important to be a part of the team.
I wasn’t drinking because I had to drive a long way home.
As I was leaving the event, a male colleague assaulted me in the carpark of the function centre.
I was shocked, I didn’t know what to do.
I pushed him away, got in my car and drove home.
R29: What was your experience like when you reported the incident?
DH: I reported the event a few days later, after a colleague encouraged me to do so.
The company had won multiple awards, and was seen as an employer of choice, so I followed the reporting process.
Very quickly, everybody knew about the incident and, as I was the new person there, it was clearly my word against a very popular male colleague.
I had no opportunity to defend myself.
Ultimately, I just wanted it to go away – I was a single parent and I needed the job.
The worst part of it all wasn’t the assault, it was how it was handled.
I realised that the handling of situations like this, in many organisations, has not changed.
Nothing happens, you’re ignored or your privacy is not respected.
It is unfathomable to me that today, with all we know, that there are still women, and men, who have had to deal with the fear and shame of assault and then question whether they should report it.
R29: Why do you think many women struggle coming forward to report sexual harassment in the workplace?
DH: To this day, there are still so many myths orbiting the discussion around sexual harassment in the workplace.
It’s the classic example of ‘you can’t take a joke’ or ‘you should take it as a compliment.’ I reject that.
It’s not a joke if it’s at someone else’s expense and it’s not a compliment if it’s not welcomed.
I think women struggle to come forward and report harassment because of all these myths floating around their mind and they end up with the conclusion that no one will believe them, or no one will take them seriously.
I struggled with the same predicament – how was my word going to compete with a popular longstanding male’s word in the same company?
I challenge others to reject these commonly held misconceptions and stand up against any form of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Diversity Council of Australia has produced some excellent myth-busting data to help combat these outdated misconceptions.
R29: What made you decide to speak publicly about this?
DH: I hope that sharing my story helps people to know it’s okay to report assault and speak up.
You don’t have to feel ashamed or scared about it.
People need to hear these stories; to know it’s okay to report assault, and that you don’t have to feel ashamed about it.
And organisations need to understand how to create a culture that makes this safe to do.
The risk is that a terrible thing can be made worse.
Alternatively, organisations can do everything in their power to support the victim and ensure it won’t happen to someone else.
Organisations need to understand that they can and often do make these situations worse – and for some, that’s as bad, if not worse, than the actual event.
R29: What can organisations do to better handle reports of workplace sexual harassment?
In my role as a managing director, I’ve made it my mission to ensure that no member of my staff ever feels like they can’t speak up, or that they will be mistreated if they do.
This issue is so important, and has been going on for so long, that leaders of businesses just don’t have an option to not stand for it.
– Actions speak louder than words; trust is essential.
If you say you’ll support people who have faced sexual harassment or assault, follow through on this promise.
Don’t let them down.
– Be public and clear about what you stand for, and what is and isn’t acceptable in your organisation.
– Be available, not just in theory but in practice.
Let your staff know they are not just able to call you if an issue arises – they are welcome to do so and will be treated with respect.
– Educate yourself on the relevant issues, including points of intersectionality, and educate your staff on them too.
Managers and C-suite executives should be expected to have a sound working knowledge of these issues, and organisations must ensure they are providing the training to understand these complicated topics and support people in conducting themselves appropriately.
– Seek to form a genuine rapport with employees and remain approachable for difficult conversations.
– Never underestimate the value of informal conversations, such as ‘corridor conversations’, in which people may raise concerns that they’re not ready to formally report.
– If something does happen, take action with care and respect; leaders have a responsibility to be aware of how to sensitively and respectfully handle the situation and should be prepared.
Ultimately, Homewood wants to remind business leaders that taking a firm position on sexual harassment is critical for the welfare of employees, their families, and the wider community.
“We have an obligation to be clear on these matters as leaders in the workplace.
It is an opportunity to change the broader community, to show people that taking a stand on these matters is important and is not a choice but a key part of our role as leaders,” she says.
“If we accept this behaviour in our workplaces where there is supposed to be some protection, particularly for those who are vulnerable, then we will accept it in our communities our schools and our homes.”
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service
*Alicia Vrajlal is Culture Editor at Refinery29 Australia.
This article first appeared at refinery29.com.