by Yen Wong, Head of Credit Research – Altius Asset Management
There is a cultural shift occurring in Australian universities with universities taking steps to prevent and address sexual assault and harassment across the sector. This follows negative publicity in the media and the high profile campaign started by the advocacy group, End Rape on Campus Australia (EROC Australia). The campaign has led to an independent survey of university students by the Australian Human Rights Commission, whose findings were published in the report Change The Course on 1 August 20171, into the nature and scale of sexual assault and sexual harassment at Australian universities.
The major Australian universities are either working on or adopting recommendations from the Australian Human Rights Commission companion report On Safe Ground2 which is a roadmap for Australian universities to change the culture of normalisation of sexual assault and harassment on campuses and address the related under-representation of women in student leadership roles.
Universities and colleges breed some of our country's most privileged future leaders
The report by Elizabeth Broderick, the former sex discrimination commissioner - Cultural Renewal at the University of Sydney Residential Colleges3 - highlights that a quarter of women living in residential colleges have reported experiencing sexual harassment and six percent of women had experienced actual or attempted sexual assault. Ms Broderick said that for women in particular, the college experience can be quite different to that of their male peers. “This was evident across many data points, including experiencing ‘exclusion or isolation', pressure to drink alcohol, sexist remarks, the pressure to have sex or hook up to fit in, experiences of sexual harassment and of sexual assault.” St John's college old boys include former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and former Treasurer Joe Hockey.
The Cultural Renewal report makes 23 recommendations to ensure a safe and supportive environment for a cohesive and collaborative intercollegiate community. A noteworthy assessment is the under-representation of women in student leadership roles which shows that only four women have held the position of senior student or house president in co-ed colleges compared to 16 men. The research is unequivocal; leadership teams that are gender diverse will result in better decision making and outcomes.
Costs to society and business
Demeaning and devaluing women is an insidious and expensive problem. The domino effect of the New York Times publication revealing decades of sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein has resulted in an avalanche of accusations against high profile men in media, politics, Silicon Valley and Hollywood with varying degrees of repercussions. It has also resulted in expensive settlements, with US$32m paid by Bill O'Reilly, American journalist and television host, and reported legal actions now being filed against these powerful men. Closer to home, TV personality Don Burke has been accused of sexual harassment and bullying of women during his time as the star of Channel Nine's Burke's program Burke's Backyard.
This behaviour comes at an enormous cost to victims and society at large. Victims bear the primary burden of this cost through having to fund their own support services, or there may be lost opportunity. There is also the cost of delivering health services, criminal justice and social welfare for victims by government.
Education on respect and consent needs to start early
The actions taken by the university sector are positive but it cannot stop there. The AHRC's and University of Sydney residential colleges' reports highlight the further work that is needed to address weaknesses around university responses, support services and prevention efforts. Changing culture takes time. It requires a persistent, united effort which recognises that the problems do not magically start after young people enter university, nor is it a problem unique to university.
The statistics on sexual harassment and sexual assault from colleges and universities are shocking but the national statistics are worse. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) report that more than 50% of women experienced sexual harassment and 18% of women experienced sexual violence which includes sexual assault in 2016. Sexual assault among young people is on the rise according to the ABS. Education centred on respect and consent needs to start early to stem the problems and biases that allow these behaviours to flourish.