11/09/2015 5:17 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

We Need To Teach Young Women Their Rights

Woman walking through rush hour crowd with arm raised, side view
McMillan Digital Art via Getty Images
Woman walking through rush hour crowd with arm raised, side view

"A woman is like a tea bag. You can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water." Eleanor Roosevelt said that way back when, but a session I delivered just recently to teen girls on workplace sexual harassment told me Mrs Roosevelt's words may be more meaningful now than ever.

There has been much fanfare about the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick's "Champions of Change" lately. The hope is that the men at the helm of this great initiative will promote and empower professional women, while helping to eradicate discrimination of women in the work place.

But, does it address the other end of the spectrum where young women and men are just starting their working lives? They are at their most vulnerable, and attitudes they will carry throughout their careers are being formed.

What is being done to support and develop our future "Champions"? As a lawyer with 17 years fighting for the many who have endured workplace sexual assaults and harassment, I can tell you the answer is not much.

When I delivered my session on this issue to a group of 150 16-year-old girls last week, it quickly became clear there's still much work to do, not least because of the acceptance of inappropriate workplace behaviour; acceptance by bosses, perpetrators, and often, victims.

About half of the audience had part time jobs, and when asked if they knew what their workplace sexual harassment policy was, only a small fraction raised their hands. It was astounding that, in 2015, so few could define sexual harassment or knew what to do if they were ever subjected to it.

As the audience filed out at the end of the session, one of the young women approached me, explaining that she works in a fast-food restaurant.

"Our shift supervisors are in their early twenties and male. They like to come up behind the female staff and massage our shoulders and tell us how cute we are," she confessed, adding the distress she feels whenever it happens.

As a result, this young lady is now on the job hunt, but her young colleagues instead chose to tough it out. " The other girls don't seem to mind, and anyway one of them is now in a relationship with one of the managers."

I'm not shocked by much these days, but when this young girl asked me whether this kind of conduct would be considered sexual harassment, I was certainly taken aback. It is the dictionary definition of sexual harassment. How are we to achieve workplace equality, if from the very start of a young woman's working life, this is what they learn to accept as normal?

I wish this was an uncommon response. I wish that young women had the solidarity to stand up for each other, and to call the behaviour for what it is without fear of being singled out as trouble makers, but many don't. What concerns me most is that very early on in their careers, young women are effectively being groomed to accept sexual impropriety for the rest of their working lives.

This is where we must break the cycle. So while our "Champions of Change" influence and filter that change through their organisations from the top, our young women (and men) need to be empowered from the start to spearhead the change; not for any gain, save for knowing it is right.

Note: I work for a publicly listed company where 75% of my colleagues are women, as is our CEO. She is a real champion.

Find out more about Adair Donaldson here.