UPDATE 5:00pm: David Hurley, the Chief of the Defence Force, has confirmed that SEMPRO is a high priority for the ADF and it will be established “before the end of the year”.

When Elizabeth Broderick released the damning second instalment report on the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force this morning, she was just rehearsing for an even bigger event, set for October this year.

That’s when the Australian Human Rights Commission will release its report into the prevalence of sexual harassment in Australia. Community numbers will be just as frightening.

Broderick said today areas of the ADF had poor leadership which allowed s-xual harassment to flourish and called on the military to provide strong guidance at the top to stop the s-xual harassment epidemic. While s-xual harassment is endemic in the community, Broderick fears the severity is worse in the military where women are taught that the time-honoured tradition of “chain of command” is sacrosanct.

The better news is that the military has already agreed to the funding and establishment of a Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response Office (SEMPRO) to oversee treatment of victims of sexual harassment to ensure they can get access to counselling and health care. It will also provide centralised data collection so figures can never be disputed.

Broderick said the establishment of SEMPRO — which will be staffed by experts — will mean treatment can be “victim-centric”, but it will also mean that under the restricted reporting conditions victims will be able to control how far their complaint goes.

Women don’t bring complaints because of the fear of negative impact, Broderick found, but once they are given support victims then have the confidence to go on with an official complaint. She said that while men were harassed in the military, the incidence was low in comparison to women.

Sexual harassment is at a serious level in the military but it’s no better in other Australian industry sectors. Broderick, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, revealed that one in four women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Full and extensive data will be released in two months.

Broderick says the government has now done all it can with the strengthening of the Sex Discrimination Act last year — now the onus must be on employers.

“We absolutely need to create workplaces where there is zero tolerance,” she said at the launch of the report in Sydney. “This issue is ubiquitous and there needs to be systemic intervention.”

“Organisations must take a much stronger approach — be proactive not reactive.”

The inquiry and subsequent report into the treatment of women in the ADF was sparked by the ADFA Skype sex abuse scandal, but Broderick says this phase two report is far more free ranging than one instance. More than 2000 women and men were interviewed face-to-face, taken from all ranks across the ADF, including interviews in Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and East Timor. Another 6000 members responded to surveys.

Broderick praised the courage of women who had been s-xually harassed and then spoken directly to senior members of the military, who Broderick said were quick to act.

Gender discrimination is recorded at all levels, from participation to leadership. And there has only been a 1% increase in the number of women in the ADF over the past 10 years.

Broderick says there was some resistance to quotas among members of the military, but she emphasised that using quotas did not mean overriding merit: “Quotas and merit are not mutually exclusive ideas.”

She also recommended that the ADF’s annual reports should have a companion report on the state of women in the organisations to ensure greater transparency.

The report has 21 recommendations which are broadly grouped into five principles: strong leadership drives reform; diversity of leadership increases capability; increasing numbers and participation will mean a need for greater opportunities; flexibility will strengthen the ADF; and the principle which led to the inquiry in the first place, harassment ruins lives.

“The recommendations are extensive but I expect good progress … cultural change doesn’t happen overnight,” Broderick said. There will be a 12-month check-up to see how implementation is progressing.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey