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Is zero tolerance of sexism achievable?

If zero tolerance for sexism is the new parliamentary standard, should it also be the standard for the typical Australian workplace?

Julia Gillard has introduced a new parliamentary standard for “calling-out” sexism whenever it occurs and the benchmark has been set at zero tolerance. She also extended this standard to her own MPs, who were subsequently criticised for not leaving an ACTU event in Parliament House after inappropriate sexist jokes were in circulation. If zero tolerance is the new parliamentary standard, should it also be the standard for the typical Australian workplace?

A survey released by the management team at Booz & Company found Australian women to be the most economically empowered in the world, ranking number one out of more than 100 countries. Does this mean sexism doesn’t exist in the Australian workplace? Unfortunately not.

Whilst sexual discrimination in the workplace is unacceptable, holding sexist views doesn’t necessarily hold any legal consequences. However these kinds of views will lead to awkward work situations that are difficult to manage and may eventuate into acts of discrimination further down the line. Good HR advice is to nip them in the bud with a policy that you not only implement, but actually enforce.

So, what would a zero tolerance sexism policy actually specify?

“Any employee who holds a single or a series of outwardly sexist opinions must adhere to the following rules or face disciplinary action that may result in termination:

  1. Absolute abstinence for the entirety of the working day from any speech or action which conveys or articulates a view which is considered offensive because it is sexist. These instances include but are not limited to: jokes, offhand comments, the sharing of media or any kind of viewing material, storytelling and general conversation.
  2. Absolute commitment to the identifying and recording of any of the above instances in a personal log which is forwarded immediately to the relevant HR representative. These logs exist as both personal and HR journals to ensure accuracy of reporting and to maintain our high standards in implementing the appropriate discipline for abuse of this policy.”

However, in reality, how many times would instances of sexism be logged and reported? Not many as enforcing a zero sexism policy may only serve to further divide the workplace and cause rifts between co-workers.

Unfortunately, sexism in the workplace exists and many of us categorise it as an unavoidable consequence of men and women working together. So no, it is not realistic to enforce a zero tolerance policy on workplace sexism, plainly because it happens too often, calling out every instance of sexism could cause more problems than the act itself.

But where is the line? While it is clearly unachievable to impose such heavy restrictions in the hope of a sexism-free workplace, there is still a level of duty that must be adopted by each employee. There is the duty to speak up if offended, as sometimes the problem arises not from what is said, but from what is heard.

What do you think?

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Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson

Ben is the CEO of Employment Innovations (EI), which holds over two decades experience helping Australian businesses navigate the legal and administrative challenges of being an employer.

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