House of horrors: The shameful workplace where one in three are sexually harassed

A man’s world. The most sexist workplace. Somewhere women felt lucky if they were not sexually harassed. That’s the damning picture painted of federal parliament.

Nov 30, 2021, updated Nov 30, 2021
Police are investigating another alleged assault on a female employee at Parliament House. File image.

Police are investigating another alleged assault on a female employee at Parliament House. File image.

One-third of people working in Parliament House and federal politicians’ offices reported being sexually harassed on the job. But only 11 per cent reported it.

About a quarter of people said they were harassed by a parliamentarian.

“It is a man’s world and you are reminded of it every day,” one person told Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ review of parliament’s workplace culture.

“Thanks to the looks up and down you get, to the representation in the parliamentary chambers, to the preferential treatment politicians give senior male journalists.”

Federal parliament has been asked to provide a public statement acknowledging the harm caused by bullying, sexual harassment and assault as well as the lack of action taken in the past to stop it.

“I do often describe Parliament House as the most sexist place I’ve worked,” someone else told the report, titled Set the Standard.

“There is a workplace culture of drinking. There’s not a lot of accountability. The boys are lads. And that behaviour is celebrated.”

Ms Jenkins’ report made 28 recommendations including for gender targets among politicians and an independent commission to oversee parliamentary standards.

“Women we spoke to told us they felt lucky when they had not directly experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault,” the commissioner said in Sydney on Tuesday.

“Many people shared distressing experiences of bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault, sometimes for the first time. They said these things could never be shared with anyone else.”

The review was sparked by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins going public in February about her alleged 2019 rape by a colleague in a minister’s office.

“I want to thank the many brave people who shared their stories which contributed to this review,” she said, calling for its findings to be implemented in full.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison thanked Ms Higgins for speaking up.

He believed Parliament House was safer now than it had been at the start of the year.

The prime minister also stressed there was “no excuse whatsoever to normalise inappropriate, unhealthy and unprofessional behaviour”.

Current and former politicians and staffers were among 1723 people, the majority of them women, who contributed to the review that conducted nearly 500 interviews.

Three-quarters of people in commonwealth parliamentary workplaces have experienced, witnessed or heard about bullying, and actual or attempted sexual harassment and assault.

“It was just a pride to be able to work there because to me, that’s the ultimate place of public service,” one person said.

“And can I tell you, when I left there … I would never, ever set foot in the place again.”

Thirty-seven per cent of people have been bullied. About one per cent have been sexually assaulted or had someone try and assault them.

Someone detailed how women took fake binders to committee meetings so male MPs wouldn’t try and kiss them.

“I’ve had colleagues caressed by senators in committee meetings in front of lots of people,” they said.

Another person explained how an MP sitting beside them “grabbed me and stuck his tongue down my throat”.

“The others all laughed. It was revolting and humiliating.”

Ms Jenkins is confident things will change at the apex of Australian politics because community demands it.

“There’s no question that the Australian community is saying: ‘Actually, you should be the model and the example’,” she said.

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