A sexual harassment complaint is made. Heads roll, careers take a downturn. People are forced to leave the company. The victim’s risk of developing depression or cardiovascular disease or dying from suicide all increase.
And the perpetrator goes on to be promoted.
As recent cases in Australia have shown, it’s rare for workplace sexual harassers to face serious consequences. They might have to sell a boat to pay off a settlement or forgo part of their bonus, but soon they’re right back on track.
Meanwhile, the victim’s career takes a nosedive. And so does her health.
In 2010, David Jones CEO Mark McInnes was accused of harassing then 27-year-old publicist Kristy Fraser-Kirk.
She anonymously launched a $37 million lawsuit, seeking 5% of McInnes’ salary and 5% of the company’s profits during McInnes’ time working there for the psychological distress. She said McInnes’ behaviour was often witnessed by other executives.
The Daily Telegraph named Fraser-Kirk against her will, plastering photos of her across the front page. Media coverage was relentless, with constant comments about Fraser-Kirk’s appearance. Journalists stationed themselves outside her home.
Fraser-Kirk became a recluse. She had her home swept for listening devices, her phone line checked for tampering and her car inspected for sabotage.
The case was settled for $850,000 with Fraser-Kirk and her now husband moving abroad “to start afresh”.
Sexual harassment can have a devastating effect on victims, causing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as physical health issues.
Women told the national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment that their anxiety got so bad they clenched their teeth until their jaws swelled up. One woman developed agoraphobia. Another had a stroke.
“One thing we know about the likes of depression and anxiety is that it has a visceral response,” director of Deakin University’s Heart and Mind Research Adrienne O’Neil told Crikey.
“Elevated heart rate, sweat and a chronic state of arousal … mental health- and cardiovascular-related conditions are related.” This link was first discovered in returning World War II soldiers who had developed PTSD.
Research has shown that the blood pressure of people who reported workplace sexual harassment was so high they were at risk of suffering stroke, aneurysms, kidney disease and heart attacks. They’re also nearly three times more likely to take their own life.
When IFM executive director Frederic Michel-Verdier allegedly texted his hotel room number to his 27-year-old colleague Nathalie Abildgaard and told her he could teach her “a lot about sex”, it wasn’t Michel-Verdier who ended up leaving the company. It was Abildgaard.
She launched a lawsuit during which she alleges a lawyer for IMF told her lawyer: “Her credibility will be so shuddered … She will never be able to work in the financial industry in London again.”
Only after Abildgaard settled the lawsuit for half a million dollars did Michel-Verdier step down. He was off to “pursue personal business interests”. He continued to serve on boards and founded a company.
Sexual harassment can be one of the most damaging barriers to career success for women.
In Australia, 25% of people who reported sexual harassment said they had experienced negative impacts to their employment, career or work because of health issues and lack of referrals. Career impact is one of the biggest barriers to reporting harassment.
McGrath head of sales Adrian Bo had at least four complaints against him for sexual harassment since 2014. One woman was reportedly “marched out” of the building after making her complaint; another had her phone taken as part of the company’s investigation and was stood down.
Bo paid for part of a $200,000 settlement by reportedly selling his private boat named “Inappropriate”.
Despite the lawsuits in 2018, Bo received a huge salary increase. He was only dismissed after the stories hit the headlines — though he went back to McGrath to provide business coaching. He is currently a sales executive and partner at NG Farah.
Women, especially young workers and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, are more at risk of being sexually harassed and having poor health outcomes. Nurses, doctors and hospitality workers are among those worst affected. Longer exposure often equals worse health outcomes.
Moreover Adrienne O’Neil told Crikey a lack of accountability can spur continued, more serious offences.
“When perpetrators see there are no tangible outcomes, they are very likely to continue perpetrating,” she says.
Former 7.30 Report host, journalist and PR consultant Jane Singleton told Crikey the impact on women’s career had been a topic largely ignored by the Me Too movement.
Married with two children, Singleton was the main income earner in her family. She was sacked from several roles after male management reportedly took issue with how women presented themselves on screen.
“During the debate, we heard about people feeling shame from the harassment, but no one brought it back to how people make their living,” she says. “So many women are key to families’ incomes.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.