Changing the Course – modern movements demanding more governance accountability from our organisations to protect against discrimination and harassment

Key Points
  • Two Australian reports and associated data show that incidents of harassment and assault occur at significantly high rates, with many unreported.
  • Low reporting levels point towards a large number of unaddressed historical claims.
  • The cultural shift towards higher accountably requires thoughtful and structured organisational responses, based on the design and implementation of best practice policies and procedures.


In the current global environment, it could be argued that there is a broad and accelerating trend towards “holding the powerful to account”, seen through social movements such as #TimesUp and #MeToo. Though largely initially confined to the entertainment industry, these movements have ended any number of high-profile careers and the ramifications are spreading geographically and across industries.

This reflects an international push to hold organisations, businesses and management to greater account for the treatment and wellbeing of individuals under their care, above and beyond standard oversight and reporting mechanisms.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) Change the Course: National report on sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities report (2017) provides important insights into this critical issue.

A key feature of the report is the broad quantitative data collection and analysis undertaken into the incidence and reporting of assault and harassment at a tertiary education level. Given the absence of broad-based hard data in relation to incidents and reporting of all discriminatory behaviour, the AHRC report provides insight into the potential scale of discrimination within this sector.

For instance, the Report identified that 51% of all university students were sexually harassed in 2016 and 6.9% were sexually assaulted within the same period. Of those, 94% of those harassed and 87% of those assaulted did not make a formal report or complaint to their university.

When viewed through the filter of this data, the potential for a vast number of latent, unreported discrimination events within this sector becomes evident. It would be reasonable to assume that this trend of incidents and non-reporting is mirrored throughout other service and business sectors across Australia.

The critical question for organisations and service providers then becomes how to address the joint issues of discrimination, non-reporting and policy oversight and who needs to take leadership.

In response to the significant issues revealed, the AHRC called on universities to adopt more transparent and accessible reporting mechanisms, with efforts to be led from the top down (i.e. from Vice-Chancellor level).

A NSW Legislative Council committee considered similar reporting and governance issues in relation to education and disability, discussed in the report - Education of students with a disability or special needs in NSW (2017). Both reports clearly identified barriers preventing those who have experienced discrimination from making reports—the AHRC identified a lack of accessibility to an institution’s existing frameworks as one such barrier, while a lack of uniform reporting requirements was identified by witnesses before the NSW Legislative Council committee as a key issue in that space.

The shifting global climate highlights the reduced tolerance for laxity in relation to sexual harassment and discrimination.

The data shows that there is a potential tsunami of latent claims and the deeper analysis shows that inaccessible governance and policy presents a barrier to resolution. These factors combine to provide service providers and businesses with an increasingly urgent imperative to ensure that they have clear, easily accessible policy and governance procedures in place to respond to these developing issues and risks.

Hicksons Partner, Jennifer Parkes, has specific legal and governance expertise in preventing and responding to discrimination and harassment issues.

Post by Jennifer Parkes

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