When domestic violence comes to work
As the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day approaches, we can and should celebrate a century of achievements for women, both small and gigantic.
But no-one could say gender equality is ‘done and dusted’. As we celebrate, we should pause to acknowledge the areas in which there has been insufficient progress, including in our working lives.
Our workplaces are still fraught with gender pay inequity, an underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, unequal treatment of men and women with caring responsibilities and the omnipresent scourge of sexual harassment.
And daily, far too many women among us live with domestic or family violence.
“That’s not a workplace issue”, I hear you say. But I am here to tell you that it most certainly is.
In 2005, over 1.2 million women across Australia experienced domestic violence at sometime during their lifetime.
Almost every week in Australia, one woman is killed by her current or former partner[ii], often after a history of domestic violence. Research in Victoria has found that domestic violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15-44 years, being a greater contributor than factors like high blood pressure, smoking or obesity.
And domestic violence has a financial cost. Combined with sexual assault perpetrated against women, it costs the nation $13.6 billion per annum.
So how is it that in 2011, on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, we still haven’t put a stop to this?
Part of the problem, I think, is that awareness of the incidence of domestic violence is still quite low and people do not understand the patterns and the realities with which the victims – women – have to live.
This is particularly so in Australian workplaces.
So often I go into businesses and talk about sexual harassment. We have an engaging and constructive conversation. But when I mention the words ‘domestic violence’, I am politely told that “domestic violence is a private matter” - that workplaces have no role.
We know that almost two thirds of women who experience domestic and family violence are in paid work, so there is no question that the issue of violence affects many in our workplaces.
Domestic violence may result in lower performance and productivity at work, as victims struggle to put on a brave face.
It may result in frequent or prolonged absenteeism, job loss because of trauma or the need to preserve and prioritise their safety.
Women who experience domestic violence are more likely to have a disrupted work history - to have to change jobs and work in casual and part time work - than women with no experience of violence.[vii]
A recent State University of New York study found that some abusive men use a range of tactics to try to sabotage women’s work efforts. These tactics include turning up at the woman’s work and physically or verbally abusing her, refusing to look after the kids at the last minute, or hiding her clothes, so she can’t go to work.
These women lose their jobs, suffer humiliation and embarrassment. Ultimately they lose their self esteem.
The point is that these penalties and disruptions to a woman’s working life have profound financial consequences, and the economic price that women pay is life-long.
But some businesses are taking a stand and beginning to see domestic violence as a business issue.
Over the last six months I have become aware of a number of organisations, in both the public and private sector, which have developed policies that support staff living with domestic violence.
Some have included an entitlement to domestic violence leave in their enterprise agreements. Others have created workplace policies to support staff by offering flexible work, special leave, the ability to change extension numbers, the possibility of working in another office or the inclusion of domestic violence support information with the workplace safety training at induction.
In Brisbane there is even an organisation called CEO Challenge that is breaking new ground by taking the message of domestic violence into workplaces. And I hope that similar organisations will soon proliferate throughout Australia.
It is incumbent on all of us to work together to address this issue. The creation of innovative and bold workplace policies is critical.
To quote noted Australian family violence expert, Betty Taylor, “The effects of domestic violence are all-pervasive. Women suffer silently and business continues losing money unawares. Business should address it not just because of the bottom line, but because it will take all sectors of society to eliminate this blight on our nation.”
After a century of advocacy for women’s rights, surely this is not too much to ask?
Elizabeth Broderick is Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner
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