Sex discrimination in the police force

Cases

Sex discrimination in the police force

A female member of the Victorian police force was awarded $125,000 compensation for sex discrimination and harassment which she was subjected to by senior male members of the force in two country stations.

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A female member of the Victorian police force was awarded $125,000 compensation for sex discrimination and harassment which she was subjected to by senior male members of the force in two country stations.

In making what was, for this jurisdiction, a very large damages award, the Victorian Equal Opportunity Tribunal took into account that the incidents complained of were mostly initiated, supported or endorsed at high levels in the police district hierarchy (McKenna v State of Victoria (Victoria Police), Nos 17 & 180 of 1997, 1 June 1998).

Sex discrimination

The complainant alleged sex discrimination in respect of her treatment by senior officers at the station after an incident involving the complainant allegedly striking an opponent during an off duty basketball match. The complainant had been cleared of the striking by the relevant sporting tribunal, but her superiors issued her with cautioning and admonishment notices. No other person in the force had been formally disciplined over such an incident. This suggested to the Tribunal that the complainant had been singled out for extraordinary punishment over the matter. The complainant was found to have been treated less favourably than a male would have been in the circumstances.

The complainant also established that a senior officer of the force gave the complainant’s private address to her former de facto. This again was found to be less favourable treatment as a male would not have been treated in the same way.

Sexual harassment

Other incidents involved sexual harassment of the complainant by the acting sergeant on night shift who was the complainant’s supervisor. On one occasion the male officer grabbed the complainant around her waist and pulled her on to his lap. On another occasion he asked her for oral sex. On a third occasion he grabbed her around the shoulders and attempted to drag her into the holding cell.

The complainant alleged there were persistent sexual suggestions and innuendo. The Tribunal found that the sergeant’s actions made it reasonably appear to the complainant that her working conditions were contingent upon her acceptance of his sexual advances or tolerating his persistent sexual suggestions or innuendo.

Victimisation

As a result of these incidents the complainant lodged a complaint of discrimination against the force and was off work for some time due to stress. She resumed work at another station even though she was still suffering stress associated with the circumstances at her previous station.

On one occasion, an incident occurred at the station for which the complainant received a caution by the her superior officers. This notice was then upgraded to an admonishment, which was unprecedented treatment. The Tribunal found this action was instigated by officers who had knowledge of the complainant’s complaint against the force, and who were aware that her health had been affected by the events that led to the complaint. This treatment was found by the Tribunal to constitute victimisation of the complainant.

Vicarious liability of Victoria Police

The Tribunal found the Victoria Police vicariously liable for the acts of discrimination and victimisation perpetrated by the complainant’s senior officers. Victoria Police pointed to policies, training programs and other materials which had been implemented to educate members about equal employment opportunity and argued that it had taken reasonable precautions to prevent its employees from contravening the Equal Opportunity Act 1995.

Despite the abovementioned steps taken by the Victorian Police, the Tribunal found there was no conscious effort by the force to ensure that from the highest level downwards members were made aware of the importance of being discrimination conscious and of ridding the formerly all male organisation of any vestiges of a male oriented culture. Little was done to instil in the leaders and senior members of the force a sense of commitment to a culture and management standards for the organisation that brought with it an expectation that every member conform to non-discriminatory standards in their work, professional behaviour and attitude.

 

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