Making workplaces better for everyone

By James Whitmore

New University of Melbourne conference highlights cutting edge research around gender harassment, LGBTIQ+ people, and women of colour in the workplace.

Researchers from 14 Australian universities presented their work at the inaugural Gender and Sexuality at Work conference, hosted by the University’s Centre for Workplace Leadership (CWL) on February 18 2020.

The conference, organised by Dr Victor Sojo (CWL) and Dr Melissa Wheeler (Department of Management and Marketing), highlighted how gender, sexual orientation, and sexual characteristics intersect with our work lives. Academics were joined by representatives from 16 public and private organisations working in this space.

“We wanted to host this conference to get workplace gender and sexuality researchers and diversity and inclusion specialists from industry together in the same space to share their knowledge about what is working, what’s not, and what needs to be further investigated in order to contribute to best practice in diversity management,” Dr Wheeler said.

Co-organisers Dr Victor Sojo and Dr Melissa Wheeler.

In her keynote Professor Lilia Cortina, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, addressed the hidden problem of gender harassment. Gender harassment, she explained, is a form of sexual harassment. Unlike sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention, gender harassment focuses on gender-related insults designed to put-down women in workplaces.

This harassment makes up the bulk of sexual harassment experiences, but is poorly recognised in workplace policy. Importantly, Cortina said, frequent gender harassment causes the same amount of harm as the more intense but rarer forms of sexual harassment such as assault.

Professor Lilia Cortina presented her work on gender harassment.

The Diversity Council of Victoria’s Cathy Brown reported on the organisation’s survey of LGBTIQ+ people at work. They found that 74% of LGBTIQ+ people thought it was important to be able to be “out” at work, but only 32% felt comfortable to do so. Being out also improves employee wellbeing and increases performance in the workplace.

University of Tasmania researchers Dr Meredith Nash and Dr Hanne Nielsen survey women working Antarctica, and 63 reported sexual harassment. Lack of privacy and the intimate relationships required by remote fieldwork contribute to women’s vulnerability on the icy continent.

In another session, Dr Nash and Dr Nielsen looked at the intersection of race and gender for women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) fields. Interviewing 30 women of colour, they found all reported “micro-aggressions”, small but frequent remarks that drew attention to the women’s race. “It’s even harder for women of colour to succeed in science,” Dr Nash said.

Dr Tania King (left) won the award for best paper by an early career researcher.

Leah Rupanner, Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-director of The Policy Lab at the University, highlighted her research from her forthcoming book on US mothers.

“We think of the coastal U.S. states as being the most progressive. In terms of policies and economic opportunities for women, my book shows that this is true. But, their childcare resources are some of the worst in th e nation and, as a result, mothers in these states are boxed out of employment.”

Sally Goldner and Son Vivienne discussed how to make campuses more inclusive for trans and gender diverse students.

The University’s Dr Tania King won the award for best paper from an early career researcher for her work on mental health and work-life balance. Her research showed men who are breadwinners are more likely suffer poor mental health than men in families where men work part time and women work part time.

Members of Victoria Police, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and the Victorian public service discussed efforts to reduce bias and discrimination in their workplaces. BCom alum Sally Goldner and Son Vivienne discussed how to make campuses more inclusive for trans and gender diverse students.

Dr Sojo said that research around gender and sexuality in the workplace is at a point where it can be translated into policy.

“This conference helped showcase the state of the art and the potential for improvement. We already have academics from other universities who want to co-host the conference in the future. We hope this is just the first of many spaces we will create to produce and share knowledge about gender and sexuality at work.”