How arts organisations are combating sexual harassment in the workplace

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Brooke Boland

New initiatives and better resources are becoming available in the effort to create safer workplaces in the arts. Here’s what you need to know.
How arts organisations are combating sexual harassment in the workplace

Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash.

Awareness around the need to improve the systems and procedures that protect employees in the workplace is growing. With this, new initiatives are emerging to help organisations create cultural change and address issues of sexual harassment and workplace bullying in the arts and creative industries. 

A recent example is Creative Victoria’s Respectful Workplaces initiative. Bringing together a working group of sector partners to find ways to address sexual harassment, misconduct and bullying in the workplace, members will advise on any necessary policy changes and support mechanisms required to create cultural change in this space.

Spurred by the energy of the #metoo movement, public awareness of the ongoing issue of sexual harassment has grown.

Nicole Beyer, a member of the Respectful Workplaces working group and Executive Director of Theatre Network Australia, said ‘there is a zeitgeist of momentum and energy around addressing this.’

The approach we need now is one of action to ensure this momentum builds into real cultural change. But the question remains: how do we achieve this?

For Beyer the timing is interesting and important, and effective change needs to simultaneously focus on the intersection of gender, cultural difference, and disability. 

‘A safe workplace is not just one that is free from sexual harassment, it is also one where if you’re an artist with a disability, that your access needs are met. If you are a First Nations artist, that the protocols around cultural safety issues are addressed, if you are a culturally diverse artist that that’s acknowledged and your needs around cultural understanding are met. That’s an area of intersectionality I’ve been understanding more and more lately, that if you’re a culturally diverse feminist those things can never be separated from one another. You will always carry the multiplicity of those intersections with you. 

‘This issue is not new. But nor is the issue of inclusion and safe workplaces across all areas. Because this conversation right now is on the political agenda and out in popular culture, we can address those other intersections too,’ she explained. 

‘The best way for us to view this whole issue is by asking, how can we make safe workplaces for everybody?’ 

At the same time as #metoo drives public awareness, there is also increasing recognition that sexual harassment, misconduct and bullying occurs differently in the arts and requires specific procedures, policies and importantly, implementation. 

‘We’re not in a regular corporate office environment,’ said Claire Spencer, Chief Executive Officer of Arts Centre Melbourne.

‘There is a growing appreciation of the level of risk that this industry carries… If you have people working on a stage if they are in that creative environment, it presents a different set of challenges than what you get in a corporate environment. I think there is a massively growing realisation of that around board tables across the state.’

Creating safer workplaces has been an important focus for Arts Centre Melbourne since it launched the Wellbeing Collective in 2017, a pilot project designed to improve mental health support services for arts workers. As a sector member of Respectful Workplaces, Spencer said a feedback loop is forming between the efforts of both initiatives and reflects the importance of collaboration in this space across the sector. ‘We’re about to launch the next three years of the Arts Wellbeing Collective in the next couple of months and what’s been clear to us working in this zero tolerance space is that the impact of people experiencing these kinds of behaviours in the workplace can be really deeply profound and really impact their state of mental wellbeing.’ 

‘We’re looking at how we can incorporate that into the Arts Wellbeing Collective so that we can give people some tools and avenues that may provide support for people who have experienced or witnessed these kinds of behaviours in the workplace.’

For Arts Centre Melbourne, this has evolved from a core value that Spencer summarises as ‘care more’, and which reflects a commitment to supporting not only staff but also the many organisations that use their spaces. One step for Arts Centre Melbourne has been to incorporate a zero tolerance policy into venue hire and contract agreements with people who use the venue. 

‘We also looked at the induction process that people have to go through when they come to work at Arts Centre Melbourne, which previously had a physical safety focus. That is now being expanded to include a Respectful Workplaces aspect to it as well. We are looking to having signage back stage that really makes it clear where is the line and when is it crossed, and also ensuring that all of our people, so the people who do work at Arts Centre Melbourne, are really clear about the mechanisms available to them,’ said Spencer. 

‘We’re almost going back to the basics and reminding people of the mechanisms available to them, but also instilling I hope a sense of obligation that if people do see something happen that they don’t feel comfortable with, then they will feel confident to be able to speak out knowing that that kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated.’

But where can you start?

‘The whole sector is still getting its head around how can we do this best, and it’s a bit iterative. People are trialling something, developing a code and then talking to other people, then redeveloping, talking to different people, and then asking where are the areas that we can share,’ said Beyer.

As this process of exchange and information sharing increases across art forms, we can expect to see new opportunities for funding support for organisations to implement procedures, as well as new flexible codes that can be adapted to the specific needs of small and medium arts organisations. For example, Theatre Network Australia will endorse the forthcoming Live Performance Australia code and has plans to create templates from this foundational document that can be adapted by small organisations and independent groups. ‘When there is a collective of two or three people working, a really dense code of conduct will not be as useful as a two or three pager with some of the top level things that need to be considered when you’re starting a rehearsal process or creative development. We will help those indie groups and those smaller organisations to do that work in adapting them,’ said Beyer.

One of the difficulties that comes with effecting change in this space is the distance between policy and action. How do you put these codes and policies into practice in a meaningful way?

May Maloney, Senior Advisor Education and Engagement at the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, (an independent Commission where anyone can inquire and seek information about a complaint), and who has been working with creative industries on these issues,  said it remains the responsibility of manager to create a ‘safe environment for their staff.’

‘All managers should be aware of and on the front foot for issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, the data shows that it exists in society and therefore also at work…I would propose that managers have a look firstly at their code of behaviour, or their policies and protections for staff and check if they are fit for purpose,’ she said. 

If managers find that there is no policy, or that it is unknown or outdated, the first step is to initiate a consultation process with staff to engage them in the design of an anti-sexual harassment policy that clearly outlines inappropriate behaviour. 

‘The policy [should] outline effective reporting mechanisms (providing a choice of avenues recognising how hard it is to come forward on these issues), and information on what consequences people who harass their colleagues will face,’ said Maloney. 

‘Lastly, it is important for managers to provide staff with information about where they can go (inside and outside) the workplace if they are being sexually harassed, this includes Centres Against Sexual Assault, Employee Assistance Programmes, health centres, legal aid, or even the inquiry line of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, where they can find more information or make a complaint. The Commission also offers a free conciliation service, which is timely and effective at dealing with sexual harassment issues in the workplace...’

Respectful Workplaces includes a list of online resources for individuals and organisations. Visit creative.vic.gov.au/Respectful-Workplaces to find out more. 

If you’ve been sexually harassed, you can contact the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission on 1300 292 153 or enquiries@veohrc.vic.gov.au for more information or to make a complaint.

About the author

Brooke Boland is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.

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