‘Just another day in retail’: Study finds sexual harassment rife across industry

(Source: Bigstock.)

Up to one in two women and one in four men working in retail have experienced sexual harassment, according to new research released Friday. 

Researchers from the Australian Centre for Gender Equality and Inclusion @ Work (ACGEIW) published by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (Anrows) concludes sexual harassment is “pervasive and persistent” in retail work with physical contact, sexually suggestive comments and jokes, intrusive questions about their private life or appearance, and staring or leering commonplace. 

The report – Just another day in retail: Understanding and addressing workplace sexual harassment in the Australian retail industry – found that women aged under 25 are the most at risk, often subjected to multiple forms of sexual harassment. 

“These are not isolated incidents,” explains Professor Rae Cooper, director of the ACGEIW. “This is happening every day across this large industry, and young people – especially young women – are copping the brunt of it.”

Cooper says employers are legally bound to prevent harm to workers from sexual harassment. 

“The retail industry is a key national employer of young people, and these workplaces have a duty of care to protect their inexperienced workers who are often working their first job. Sexual harassment doesn’t just come from customers – peers and managers are often perpetrators. It is pervasive.” 

Tessa Boyd-Caine, CEO of Anrows, describes sexual harassment in retail as “common, normalised, and harmful”.

“This is part of the broader social environment that enables violence against women and children and as such, sexual harassment needs to be understood clearly and taken seriously.”

She called on retailers to improve workplace reporting mechanisms, the collection of data relating to incidents, ramp up training of staff and management and communicate outcomes to staff.   

“There will be no one-size-fits-all solution to tackle this widespread problem, but as it stands, employers lack the necessary tools to action their responsibilities to keep their staff safe and free from sexual harassment. Enhanced reporting processes are imperative to ensure victim-survivors feel safe and empowered to come forward.” 

Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra said described sexual harassment in the workplace as “a significant, ongoing concern for retailers”. 

“We acknowledge the independent research teams for providing a safe space to have an open dialogue. Now it’s up to the retail sector to take this report, build on it, and create an environment where our staff don’t have to come to work in fear of sexual harassment and violence.”

That research drew from four existing surveys, interviews with 15 experienced industry insiders and 12 focus groups including 56 retail workers and managers. The report found that many staff felt unsure about how to report sexual harassment – and those who do are often left dissatisfied with the process. 

Gerard Dwyer, national secretary of the SDA, urged retail workers affected by sexual harassment to document it and use their company’s formal complaints process to report it, speak to their union, or speak to a government body such as the Fair Work Ombudsman

Dwyer expressed consent that there is “significant variation” in employer policies and the quantity, frequency, and types of sexual harassment training provided. “Solving this requires an industry-based approach with union engagement.”

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