Sex and surveillance

It seemed a little case, but it has big ramifications. It began at Western Hospital, where an orderly/security officer was noticed to be frequently absent from his post. Covert surveillance revealed why: he was spending more than a quarter of his work time in an audio-visual room, watching porn on the Internet.

He was sacked and appealed against the dismissal. The ruling: he didn’t have a leg to stand on. “I consider the use of pornographic material in the workplace to be totally and absolutely inappropriate,” Industrial Relations Commissioner Foggo said in his June ruling on the case.

Commissioner Foggo found that watching porn on the Net at work was, in itself, an offence serious enough to justify instant dismissal, before even considering the related questions of neglect of duties and lost productivity.

Immediate termination is a punishment traditionally associated with the more dramatic breaches of workplace etiquette, such as punching out the boss or arriving at the office reeling drunk. Now, it seems, failure to keep oneself nice on the Net has joined the list of capital offences.

This will no doubt be concentrating the minds of the 100 or so employees of the Australian Bureau of Statistics who are being investigated for allegedly sending or receiving pornographic pictures, downloaded from the Internet, through internal office e-mail.

It is believed that their illicit activities were discovered during a routine security sweep of the staff’s personal e-mail files. Covert surveillance of the hospital orderly, however, only began after suspicions of wrong-doing. But both cases raise questions, not only about staff using office facilities to embrace the world of cybersex, but about employers using the hi-tech tactics of Big Brother.

In the Western Hospital case, Commissioner Foggo acknowledged some disquiet over the monitoring issue: “I have some problem with the surveillance being installed and employees not being aware of it. However … I concur with the view of the management of the hospital … that the workload issue, the integrity of the health care and the security services and, as it turned out, the use of pornographic material, even though it was not known at that stage, do, in the end, justify the use of surveillance.”

According to a recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, more than half of Australia’s biggest companies carry out video surveillance of their employees and the general public. And 15 per cent of those who do so do not inform their staff of it. Those who do tell their staff usually do not reveal details, such as where and when the monitoring takes place. Many employers also monitor staff phone calls, e-mail and Internet use.

It is much harder to estimate the prevalence of furtive use of office computer facilities to access pornography.

Individual companies approached for comment refused to be part of this story. Telstra declined to confirm or deny a report that an employee was sacked several months ago for offences similar to those alleged at the ABS: “We cannot talk about individual employees,” says spokeswoman Liz McGrath.

But Telstra has adopted a hard-line policy on Internet use that is typical of the protocols many anxious companies now impose on their staff. McGrath says: “When staff sign up to use the Net, their general manager is required to sign a document saying that they understand that this is to be used for business purposes only and that any employee found to be downloading inappropriate material
would face internal disciplinary action or, where warranted, would be handed over to police.

“Staff are made very, very aware that there are controls in place to monitor their use of the Internet.”

So, what rights do staff have to privacy in their cyber communications?
None, apparently, says associate professor Julian Teichner, executive directior of the National Key Centre in Industrial Relations at Monash University.

“The normal rights we have, or assume we have, to privacy do not necessarily apply at work,” he says. “At work, you are really surrendering those rights. The (employer-staff) relationship, in the abstract, is one which is very restrictive of the individual … I think employers can introduce any surveillance they like.”

Teichner recalls an unfair dismissal case several years ago in which a union argued that one of its members was justified in having obscured the view of a surveillance camera because the camera had been installed without the union being informed: “The commission actually ignored the argument about whether the union should have been consulted.”

While staff surveilance may seem heavy-handed to some, most employers believe sexual harassment laws, which make an employer responsible for creating a working environment in which all are comfortable, force management to proactively screen for trouble of a sexual nature.

David Gregory, industrial relations manager for the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says viewing porn on the Net is no different to reading a pornographic magazine at your desk: “If someone happened to walk in and take that behavior the wrong way, it could constitute a breach of the sexual harassment laws.”
Last, but not least, is the question of the damage that could be done to a company’s good name if its staff become publicly associated with the transmission of prurient material. Recently, a long and bawdy limerick about the imagined sexual proclivities of political figures arrived unsolicited, and presumably accidentally, at an e-mail address at this newspaper. It came via a prestigious law firm.

That’s one of the terrible dangers of e-mail, says Professor Teichner: “Press the wrong button and you could send it to 1000 people.”

First published in The Age.

Men, women and office games

Her biggest mistake is giving him unsolicited advice; his, reacting to her as if she were his mother. He likes his competence to be appreciated; she likes her feelings to be taken into account. He likes solving his own problems; she tends to run her life by committee, consulting everyone around her before making a decision. Sounds like a marriage, doesn’t it?

In fact, it’s the gender dynamics of the average office, according to Sydney-based author Candy Tymson, who believes that differences in the way men and women operate can play merry hell with communication between the sexes, even when they are at work.
Tymson, a business speaker and corporate trainer with 25 years’ experience working with large corporations, has written a book charting the differences between men’s and women’s approaches to the business world and the frustration and confusion that can result. Gender Games: Doing Business with the Opposite Sex, is a snappy, reader-friendly summary of the latest research findings on the communications gender gap, together with tactful suggestions on how to bridge it.

Tymson called the book Gender Games because she believes that each sex’s different operating style can be traced as far back as the school playground.

Men Hate Women Who:

Are too emotional

Are not focused enough

Go into too much unnecessary detail

Take themselves too seriously

Women Hate Men Who:

Do not take them seriously

Interrupt or speak for them

Call them names such as “sweetheart” or “honey”

Just don’t understand how they like to work

Young boys play competitive games such as football and cricket, in which there is a leader, each player has a particular role and the aim is to win. Girls play cooperative, inclusive games such as hopscotch and skippy, in which everyone gets a turn and the aim is to keep everybody happy.

Tymson says each sex automatically applies this childhood orientation to life in the business world. Of course, there are no absolutes and stereotypic behaviors are breaking down as the sexes work together. But, she says, it is still true that male managers tend to be task-focused, directive and solitary decision-makers, while female managers are more collaborative and consultative, as well as better equipped for taking on several tasks simultaneously.

“To men, playing the game and playing it well is what matters. For most women, being liked and being part of the game is what matters, not the game itself,” she says.

“Even the word ‘game’ means quite different things to a man and a woman. To most women, the word ‘opponent’ is essentially equivalent to the word ‘enemy’. To most men, it just means a competitor. To women, ‘cooperation’ means that everyone gets involved and pitches in. To men, ‘cooperation’ means doing your job and letting everyone else do theirs.”

So what does all this mean for life in the land of power suits? Given that men run most of the public sphere, interpreting workplace exchanges accurately is a survival skill that can be particularly tricky for women. Take the apparently innocuous issue of asking questions.

The book tells of an American linguist, Deborah Tannen, observing a group of medical interns as they did hospital rounds with a senior doctor. The female students frequently asked questions; the males did not. She asked the men later whether this was because they already knew the answers.

Tymson writes: “Without exception, all the men said that it is common for interns and residents to conceal their ignorance by not asking questions, since those who (ask) are judged less capable. Instead, they would find out the information themselves, either by researching it after the event or asking one-on-one, but never in front of their peers.”

At the end of the year, the senior doctor marked down most of the women for their ward performance. He believed their questioning indicated they did not understand as much as their male counterparts.

Tymson says that, for a man, achieving goals and solving problems independently is extremely important: “To him, autonomy is a symbol of efficiency, power and competence; a man’s sense of self is defined through his ability to achieve results.” Consequently, “One of the biggest mistakes a woman can make is to offer a man unsolicited advice.”
Because proving their competence is not as important to most women, they generally do not find offers of help offensive and do not perceive needing help as a sign of weakness, she says. Their approach is more likely to be, “Why waste time when you can simply ask someone?”

There are other ways in which a typical male perspective can judge a woman’s different operating style as ineffective or inappropriate. Says Tymson: “I had a managing director talk to me the other day, very concerned about a senior woman who was his resources manager. He had given her a problem and he just wanted her to solve it. She kept coming back to check in with him.

“A woman will go around and discuss a problem with a number of people, get feedback and check whether people will support a particular solution or not. Her focus is to recommend something that most people will go along with. A typical male manager might discuss it discreeely with one or two people but will feel he must make the decision. It leaves men thinking that women can’t make a decision on their own. But women are focused on building rapport, not just for their own emotional needs, but to achieve the goal.”

While men can find women’s routes to a goal unnecessarily verbose and circuitous, women can find the male style abrupt to the point of rudeness. Tymson says men tend to use language to preserve their independence and maintain their position in a group; women, to create connection and intimacy. Women usually give feedback and encouragement to a speaker by smiling, nodding and asking questions. (This can backfire for them when listening to men, who can slide into lecturing mode because they interpret nodding as agreement, rather than mere attentiveness.)
Increasingly, the best managers have developed a blend of both male and female approaches, Tymson says. She surveyed 336 managing directors, managers and company staff to try to determine where they scored in terms of four “feminine” goals (equality, agreement, feeling, interdependence) and four “masculine” goals (status, competition, action and objects, autonomy).

Most used both “the ‘masculine’ behaviors of being decisive, focused and logical, together with the ‘feminine’ behaviors of building relationships, seeking agreement and relying more on their intuition”.

One successful man was dismayed that he scored high on “feminine” values. Then he realised that this was because he ran a company in which the staff were female and the product – romance novels – was designed for the women’s market. In his previous job with a construction company, he had operated quite differently.

Women, however, must be more cautious about adopting the “male” style. In the book, Tymson writes that, “Generally, (businesswomen) are still expected to hedge their beliefs as opinions, seek advice from others, be ‘polite’ in their requests . . . If a woman does talk in this way, she is seen as lacking authority . . . (But) if she uses the male model and talks with certainty, makes bold statements of fact rather than hedged statements of opinion (and) interrupts others . . . she is disliked.”

Tymson says older men, brought up with the belief that women should be protected, particularly dislike coming up against young women who are tougher than they are. “They just let her go until she makes a mistake and then they sabotage her,” she says. “They don’t let her know about important meetings; urgent material doesn’t make its way to her. Don’t try to be one of the boys; they don’t like it.”

If being tough earns dislike, and being nice earns contempt, how should corporate women play the game? Tymson acknowledges that this is a vexed question. She suggests that a woman should adapt her style to the individual she is dealing with, but also refuse to be intimidated by men.

And she offers a piece of advice that might well have come from grandma: “A man needs to feel acknowledged and respected. You get the best response appealing to his abilities and expertise; once that has been established, he will accept your suggestions.”

* Gender Games: Doing Business with the Opposite Sex, by Candy Tymson, published by Tymson Communications, $19.95.

Quick thinking can win Tymson’s words

How’s this for an embarrassing moment? The female managing director of a large advertising agency is running late for a meeting to pitch her firm to a prospective new client. She rushes in to the boardroom, where 20 men are waiting, and dumps her briefcase on the table, upside-down.

Eager to start her presentation, she reaches for her case to extract some relevant audio-visuals. The case opens and a host of personal items spill out, including a tampon, which rolls slowly down the centre of the table, drops to the floor and lands at the feet of the chairman.

Not missing a beat, the female MD strides confidently to the end of the table and picks up the tampon. She holds it up in view of the chairman, looks him in the eye and says with a laugh: “I don’t think you’ll be needing this,” before putting it back in her case and continuing with the presentation.

She won the account.

First published in The Age.

Australia and maternity leave

THERE has always been an obvious way to find the answer to Freud’s famous question, “What do women want?” Ask them. Ann Sherry did just that when she became a general manager at the Westpac bank and realised the cost to the bank of a high turnover of skilled female employees, especially after childbirth. “Nearly 70 per cent of our staff are female and most of them are front-line service staff, the ones who build relationships with customers,” she says.

First, she did the sums: “We had a look at their average length of service and their skill levels, how much the organisation had invested in them and how much they cost to replace.”
Then she asked women why they chose to resign when having a baby, rather than take maternity leave. Sherry discovered that many quit simply so that they could cash in their benefits to set up the baby’s nursery. “Having a baby is a high-cost exercise,” Sherry says. “You need millions of baby things and dozens of nappies at a time when your income drops.

“We realised that, by keeping their income going over that critical period, we would ease the pressure on them to resign. We worked out that if we increased our return-to-work rate by only 10 per cent, the cost savings to us would pay for maternity leave across the organisation. So we did it.”
Women at Westpac now have six weeks paid and 12 months unpaid maternity leave, and Sherry’s predictions have been proved right: “We keep more of our skilled people and we keep their commitment.”

This is a rare Australian story. Most women are in the workforce before they have their first child but only about 17 per cent are eligible for paid maternity leave.

In a recent survey, the United Nations named Australia as one of the world’s poorest providers of paid maternity leave (although it was one of the best with unpaid leave, with a national standard of 12 months). The report on 152 countries by the International Labor Organisation said Australia is one of only six that does not require that women be paid during maternity leave. (The other five are the United States, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho and Swaziland.)

The report, Maternity Protection at Work, estimated that women provide the main source of income in 30 per cent of the world’s households. In Western countries, more than 55 per cent of working women supply half or more of their family’s income. “Without cash and health benefits, many women could not afford to take maternity leave or might be forced to return to work before their health allowed,” the report said.

In Australia, the few private-sector areas with paid maternity leave, such as car manufacturing, tend to be those in which unions have won the benefit as part of award negotiations or enterprise bargaining deals. (Public sector unions have won the nation’s most generous benefits, with 12 weeks paid leave). Such proposals seldom come from management, where maternity leave is more often viewed as another cost to be avoided.

David Edwards, the chief executive officer of the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, shares this more typical view. “One person’s paid maternity leave is another person’s job,” he argues. “The European countries that pay such benefits and have high levels of social services also have the highest levels of unemployment.

“The issue for Australia is how to balance the community’s need for better employment benefits and social services with issues of unemployment and with the competitive market we face in Asia, where there is no paid maternity leave.”

For Professor Belinda Probert, director of the centre for applied social research at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the issue is not whether paid maternity leave should be introduced, but how best to introduce it fairly.

She dismisses Edward’s argument that it inevitably increases unemployment. “The Scandinavian countries had this benefit long before they had high unemployment,” she says. “It is true that some small businesses, for example, would find it very hard to pay for maternity leave, but no business is willingly going to pay when it knows that its competitors are not.”
In 1995, the Keating Government introduced a maternity allowance (currently a one-off payment of $950) upon the birth of a child. Because it is made to all mothers, including those not in the paid workforce, it is not, technically, paid maternity leave. It also falls short of what the ACTU had proposed at the time: an allowance of at least $140 a week for 12 weeks.

Overseas, payment systems vary. Some countries pay benefits through the social services system, others require employers to pay and a third group uses a combination of both. Denmark provides 18 weeks on full pay (social security), Switzerland eight weeks on full pay (employer) and Japan 14 weeks at 60 per cent of pay (social security).

Probert is concerned that Australia’s laissez-faire approach, which relies on each industry or workplace to negotiate its own terms, means that paid maternity leave will be introduced slowly and inequitably.

“The big policy question for Australia is the way we are making all these employment benefits hinge on enterprise bargaining,” she says. “That will only work for a few people in privileged industries, like education.” Probert fears that some workers will be forced to give away other benefits, such as sick leave, to win paid maternity leave.
She also fears that this could divide men and women, with male workers resenting losing established benefits so that females can have paid maternity leave. “In Scandinavia, maternity benefits are taken out of general revenue, so you don’t have to trade off something to get it,” she says.

There has long been concern that employer-paid maternity leave might discourage employers from hiring women. Linda Rubinstein, a senior industrial officer with the Australian Council of Trade Unions, says that when the ACTU pitched for unpaid maternity leave in 1979, it didn’t ask for paid leave for fear it would disadvantage women in the job market. This is no longer an issue because there are now comprehensive anti-discrimination laws, she says.

But she points to other barriers. Australia’s Constitution prevents the Federal Government legislating on employment conditions, making it difficult to introduce a national policy. And she doubts that any application for paid maternity leave would be approved by the Industrial Relations Commission in the current environment.

Anne Callanan, policy worker with the Council of Single Mothers and their Children, says that it is interesting to note which needs employers have no difficulty accommodating.

She has a friend who works in a large, competitive company: “She often talks about the different attitude that is taken when a man has to take time off for a sporting injury versus when a woman needs time off because of her children. He gets sympathy. She gets a lot of muttering about how `She shouldn’t be doing that; can’t she get someone else to do it?”‘

Megan Wahr, 37, founder and co-ordinator of the Australian Businesswomen’s Network, takes her four-month-old son to the office every day so that he can be held and breastfed while she works. She gave herself a week of unpaid leave when he was born.

An independent go-getter who has set up her own small business, Wahr used to believe it was up to individuals to make their own way. “I used to take the attitude that nobody owes you anything, that if you want children, you should pay for them.

“The reality of motherhood has changed my perspective. It’s not

something you can do autonomously. Suddenly you need people in a way you didn’t before. It’s been a great educator for me, teaching me that we are all links in the chain. The concept I had before was selfish and outmoded and completely unrealistic.”

For a woman running her own small business, “maternity leave is not very realistic. I planned four weeks’ leave with my first baby but only had about seven days because my secretary left suddenly. (Going back to work so soon) just killed me. You’re brain dead with lack of sleep.” Most small businesses could never afford to provide paid maternity leave, she says.

She is startled to learn that, in some countries, the government pays every mother during at least part of her maternity leave: “It’s a concept I’ve never considered … but I do think the community would benefit from women being paid to stay home for the first month or two, knowing that at least the minimum bills would be paid.”

Laura Young, 32, a spare-parts packer with General Motors-Holden, received six weeks’ paid maternity leave before taking 12 months unpaid leave to be with her third child, eight-month-old Murray. Holden subtracted from her maternity payment the equivalent of the maternity allowance she received from the Federal Government.

“This is my first paid maternity leave, so I know the difference between unpaid and paid. It means that I can stay off for a whole 12 months this time. It’s been lovely being home with the baby and being able to take the other children to school and to kinder.

“With my first child I could only take 10 months because we ran out of money. If I hadn’t got paid this time I would have had to go back by now. It’s so hard with a third; both the others are at school, so there are a lot of other costs – school fees, excursion levies, uniforms. They cost me $350 to get to school this year.”

Pip Knight, 29, public relations executive with a clothing company, is at home on 12 months unpaid maternity leave with her first baby.

“Until you actually have a baby, the issue isn’t of interest to you, but as soon as you get pregnant, you think ‘Oh God!’ You become acutely aware of what you don’t get.

“I wouldn’t expect an employer to pay for the 12 months you are at home, but I think there could be better incentives. I would like to see more things like job-sharing, that would allow you to be a mother and work as well. I think it would make staff feel more loyal and more contented … My employers have offered me a four-day week when I go back, which is better than five.

“Australia seems to be lagging behind. You read in magazines about how things are much more advanced in other countries, with maternity leave, job-sharing, creches at work. It would make the transition easier from workforce to motherhood and back again. I think the next generation will benefit from that.”

First published in The Age.

Loving dilemmas: office romance and dangerous liaisons

One of the greatest legacies of Bill Clinton’s presidency might turn out to be the way he has brought a whole new meaning to “current affairs”.

Nightly TV bulletins about the reported predilections of the presidential penis have brought a wicked frisson to gossip around the water cooler in American and Australian workplaces.

If it’s OK to talk in detail about oral sex on the news, then it must be OK to laugh about it at work, mustn’t it? And who could feel harassed by harmless jokes about a politician’s “smoking trousers”? (Apart from their owner, of course.)

Some American commentators claim the Monica Lewinsky affair has turned the tide against political correctness in the workplace. It has certainly reignited debate about appropriate behavior for male and female colleagues. Is there any harm in the mutual enjoyment of blue humor? If it comes to that, is there any harm in the mutual enjoyment of each other’s bodies?

According to US opinion polls, Americans are far more concerned by the possibility that Mr Clinton lied or conspired than they are by allegations of sexual encounters with underlings.

In Queensland, the claims of illicit sex and financial rorting by Government ministers are controversial largely because at least one of the gentlemen concerned is alleged to have indulged his pleasures at the public’s expense. That age-old phenomenon, the office affair, seems to have lost some of its scandalous cachet.

It is, after all, the way many people find their life-long partner. According to Rosalie Pattenden, a senior counsellor with Relationships Australia, it is the second most common way Australians meet their future spouses (the first is through friends and family). She believes office affairs have become more prevalent as women have joined the workforce and as work practices have changed.

“People are working longer hours and they are working, often, on intense projects with a small number of people or one other person,” she says.

“Sometimes, when they get very involved, when they need to meet often and understand each other’s feelings about an issue, the excitement can be mistaken for something more romantic, and the relationship slips into intimacy.

“There are also all sorts of extra-curricular activities in the workplace: people go to conferences together, to rural meetings. They have more time out of their real world and can start having romantic fantasies. It’s particularly likely to happen if one person is unattached or attached but unhappy.”

Psychologist Dr Janet Hall, who has made a study of sexual politics in the workplace, says that colleagues are most likely to fall into each other’s arms after office Christmas parties or conferences for which they are away overnight: “They have a few drinks and stay up until two in the morning and end up sleeping in the wrong beds.”

Dr Norman Rees, a Sydney-based clinical and organisational psychologist, says the typical woman who embarks on a workplace affair has an impoverished personal life and is rather lonely. She has invested a lot of time and energy in work, so that is naturally the place she tends to meet romantic prospects.

The typical man, he says, is aged between 45 and 50, is experiencing problems in his marriage and is possibly also shaken by challenges to his position at work. An adoring acolyte boosts his flagging self-esteem.

Office affairs can become nightmarish for the lovers, their colleagues and the corporation if the sexual dynamic becomes entangled with the power dynamics that swirl through every workplace. Dr Rees says: “If people are from different departments, or have relatively similar levels of status, it’s much less complicated. If it’s a relationship between a subordinate and a superior, particularly if it’s a younger woman and an older man, that brings in the whole question of advantage and control.”

Dr Rees believes that companies should educate managers about their responsibilities towards younger staff and encourage them to make mature assessments when juniors seem attracted to them.

Some relationships are built solely on the difference between the lovers’ workplace status. In mediaeval times there was a brutal custom known as droit du seigneur (the right of the lord) or jus primae noctis (the right of the first night). The lord was entitled to ravish the bride of any of his servants on the wedding night. Ms Pattenden says some businessmen still operate on this principle.

“The values in our society are changing, but there’s still a percentage of men who are very patriarchal and believe that men should be the dominant sex,” Ms Pattenden says. “They believe that they have every right to whatever they want and that women should fall in with that.”

Many Americans believe that any sexual transgressions Mr Clinton might have committed while on the job (so to speak) are solely a matter for himself and his wife, Hillary. Certainly personal morality is just that – personal.

But Attracta Lagan, the director of consulting services with the St James Ethics Centre in Sydney, argues that every workplace affair has the potential to cause professional conflicts of interest. Her bottom line is one that many would baulk at: ethical employees should reveal their relationship to the employer.

“Ethics are about considering how your actions affect others,” she says. “Where you put your own interests before the company’s, you are in a potential conflict of interest. Colleagues might be concerned about what they see happening – will the secret they confided to one be revealed to the other during pillow talk? Organisational life becomes less transparent. Despite the best will in the world, partners will support each other when in a group, such as a committee.”

And what happens, she says, if one party is assigned the task of nominating redundancies – will a current partner be unfairly protected or an ex-partner be punished?

Ms Lagan practised what she preaches. Ten years ago, she found herself bonding with the CEO of her company. They both acknowledged the attraction, but she refused to allow it to go further until she left for a job elsewhere. “The idea of anyone thinking that I got anywhere because of someone else was anathema to me,” she says. “I felt that my career progress would be compromised. Women can’t afford to let anyone cast doubts on their ability.”

Acording to Dr Hall and the chief executive of the Equal Opportunity Commission, Diane Sisely, neither women nor men can afford to let Clinton-inspired steamy e-mails and suggestive remarks become the new office norm. Dr Hall says: “Once the tone is lowered, you open up opportunities for sleazes to take things too far. Two women I know who were seriously sexually harassed say it started with dirty jokes that everyone condoned.”

Ms Sisely warns that people who engage in such banter should be certain that they know the person they address extremely well; if the other party is offended, it becomes sexual harassment.

But neither supports the idea of a formal ban on office romance. Human nature cannot be utterly constrained, and nor should it be. Remember Ms Lagan? She’s been happily married to that CEO for 10 years now.

First published in The Age.

Is the office out to get you?

Feeling sick and tired? If the thought of entering the office fills you with nausea, you’re not alone. Chances are if you’re sick, so is your office. 
THEY’VE solved a lot of today’s problems in those sci-fi shows on the telly. Deep sea travel, deep space travel, intergalactic peace mere trifles, really. What today’s earthlings really need to know is: How do the crews of these futuristic ships manage to live for months without fresh air or sunlight, while staying as fit and cheerful as a winning team of football jocks? No one in Star Trek or Seaquest DSV ever has sore eyes, a rasping cough and lethargy after a tough day on the control console. They never find their sleeping quarters are sickeningly hot, while those working near the floor-to-ceiling windows catch endless colds and must wear scarves to ward off the draughts. And despite all the high-tech gizmos, no one ever seems to develop an allergy to the chemical fumes from computers, desks, carpets, and room fittings.

In short, there is no resemblance to real life in the average high-rise office building of today. Somewhere along the way to warp drive, scientists must have sorted out the problems of sick building syndrome.

We should be so lucky. Many of Australia’s two and a half million office workers now spend more than 90 per cent of their waking lives in artificially controlled environments that are potentially hazardous to the health. The result, for a few human occupants, is a severe illness such as an allergic reaction or asthma attacks.
Many more suffer frequent respiratory infections and a low-grade malaise in worktime that disappears when they leave the office, a pattern known as sick building syndrome or building-related illness.

Add to this the computer-age problem of injuries to hands, arms and shoulders from overuse of keyboards, and the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle (absenteeism from illness due to poor eating and exercise patterns is estimated to cost Australian industry more than $6 billion a year), and you begin to wonder: Is life in the office bad for your health? The answer is more likely to be “Yes” if you work in a new building, one that is 12 to 18 months old, or a recently refurbished one. The World Health Organisation says that up to 30 per cent of such offices will be affected by sick building syndrome, leaving occupants with symptoms such as wheezing, coughs, headaches, undue fatigue, sore eyes, noses and throats, and nausea and dizziness.
It is not known how many people are affected, and it is suspected that many problems go unreported.

This makes it hard to tell how serious the problem is. Cynics dismiss the syndrome as the product of neurotic people making up symptoms, and they are the kinds of symptoms easily faked or imagined.
Some overseas research does indicate that psychological factors are at play; workers who have boring jobs and little control over their environment are more likely to complain. The Welsh School of Architecture surveyed 2000 office workers and found some direct links between buildings and ill-health but also discovered, says the school’s Nigel Vaughan, that “You can be working in a sod of an office with all the classic signs of a sick building and still feel fantastic as long as your bosses respect you and there’s no threat of being thrown on the dole.” But consultants, such as the team from the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission’s Worksafe Australia, say they nearly always find a physical cause for health problems in buildings that they are called in to investigate. It is true that some people are affected by low levels of contaminants and others not, they say, but that is because they are more sensitive to them, just as some people are affected by cat hair or pollen and others are not.

The major culprit, in many cases, is poor air-conditioning. Peter Williams, a senior lecturer in the faculty of architecture, building and planning at Melbourne University, has surveyed nearly 600 Melbourne office buildings in the past six years and found few came up to scratch. “It’s staggering how much of the building stock is affected, ” Williams says.

Nearly half the air-conditioning systems did not allow access to areas that needed to be kept clean and dry to prevent them becoming a breeding ground for fungi and bacteria, including the potentially fatal legionella. Eighty-two per cent failed the current Australian standards for fresh air. Many recirculated too much stale air because the building managers believed it was cheaper than having to heat or cool fresh air, Williams says.

In 63 per cent of the buildings, the fresh air intake itself was contaminated, often because it was stupidly situated and affected by car emissions from the basement carpark, or by the system’s outflow vent (drawing back the stale air the system was trying to expel). Some buildings had no fresh air intake at all.

Such faults are exacerbated in new or newly refurbished buildings because much of today’s furniture, carpets, curtains and fittings give off gases, known as “volatile organic compounds”, when new.
The vapors come from substances such as glues, solvents, fire retardants, and the foam in upholstery; new computers can emit gases when the plastic and wiring inside them heats up.

It is an invisible plague, and the toll on health is much harder to see or understand than, say, the problem of the manual worker who does his back when a crate falls on him. That makes sick building syndrome a natural target for critics, who dismiss it as a fantasy of the workshy. But the last time cynics tried to brush aside a new-fangled occupational health problem, they were proved badly wrong.

In the mid-1980s repetitive strain injury was nicknamed “kangaroo paw” and derided as a form of hypochondria unique to Australians.
Now overuse injuries account for 60 per cent of all workplace illnesses in America, making them the fastest-growing occupational ailment in that country.

In contrast Mark Towler, health and safety officer with the Victorian Trades Hall Council says overuse injuries in Australian offices have plummetted over the past decade due to changing attitudes by employers, who now take the problem seriously, and
to design changes in computer equipment and office furniture. Multi-skilling of employees as companies downsize also means that fewer people are now tied to keying at high speed for eight hours a day, he says.

Victoria’s WorkCover figures show that RSI claims by workers in a group of office-based industries have fallen from 922 in 1985- 86 to 186 in 1993-94.

But the jury is still out on other potential computer health hazards, such as radiation exposure and eyestrain, Towler says.
It is possible that staring for hours a day at a screen damages the eye’s ability to adjust focal length, which would impair the ability to drive and other tasks.

What is clear is that sitting in an office day after day, with little or no vigorous physical exercise, takes its toll on health.
Regardless of the population of an organisation, the most common and costly health problems are always consistent: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and poor physical fitness.

Says Julie Bond, programs manager for Life. Be in It: “People sit down from the time they get in until morning tea, except to get up to walk a short distance to the coffee machine, where they have a coffee which accelerates their blood pressure. Then they sit until lunchtime when they walk to the canteen . . . More and more research confirms that your body can’t cope as well with stress when you’re run down and inactive.” This, at least, would seem to be under the individual’s control.
Bond says that 30 minutes’ exercise a day, the equivalent of a brisk walk at lunchtime, would be enough to improve fitness. But even that time might be hard to find, as unpaid overtime increases in the struggle to hold on to jobs while unemployment is high.

The cost of all this is not only measured by the toll on worker health and well-being. It has a significant impact on the company bottom line as well. Professor Wai-on Phoon, head of Worksafe Australia’s occupational medicine unit, says that sick building syndrome “does affect productivity; some people just feel so tired”.

David Rowe, senior lecturer in building services with the University of Sydney, set out to find the monetary cost of an uncomfortable office environment. “One hypothesis is that if people were feeling unhappy about the place they work in and decided
they were sick enough to take time off from work, it’s quite possible that they might take more time than they would if they had an attractive workplace. If each of Australia’s 2.5 million office workers took an extra half a day of sick leave per year, it would cost industry about $130 million a year.” At least one case has made it to court. In March the Sydney solicitors Lane and Lane sued the developer of their building, over alleged fundamental design shortcomings in the air-conditioning of its city offices. The case was settled out of court, but not before it had eaten up the not-inexpensive time of six barristers, five solicitors and a Federal Court judge.

Generally, though, the current economic climate militates against solving many sick building problems. Buildings will continue to be built on the cheap by developers who cut corners; to be managed by companies that cut maintenance costs by failing to do maintenance; to be fitted out by tenants who have no idea about what their floor- to-ceiling partitioning is doing to the air flow, or about the consequences of cramming too many people into too small a space.
The problems are fixable, Williams says, “But they cost. They certainly do cost.” That’s the thing about sci-fi, of course. In its fantasy world, no one has to deal with the realities of stumbling economies, cut-throat competition, the need for organsations to be lean and mean. You don’t find Star Fleet Command cutting corners because the budget is tight this year. In real life it is different; who needs the challenge of sci-fi’s windswept planets and roaring beasties when our own buildings are out to get us? Beam us up, Scottie.

First published in The Age.

Keeping sex in its place

Accusations of sexual harassment have bedevilled universities and government, organisations supposedly staffed by the well-educated.
Why, asks Karen Kissane, do complaints from this quarter so often end in disaster?
`I’D LIKE TO get into her pants,” the professor is supposed to have said. “I’d like a secretary who’ll sit on my knee while I give dictation.” Did he really say it? Has his secretary really been victimised for complaining about it? And does any of this sound familiar?
The claims come from the latest sexual harassment scandal in a public institution, this time James Cook University in northern Queensland. They broke on to the national scene this week at the same time as writer Helen Garner published her book on the harassment case at a Melbourne University hall of residence that has become known as “the Ormond College affair”.

Sandwiched between these two controversies was last year’s Griffiths affair, in which a NSW Police Minister was forced to quit after nine members of his staff accused him of unwanted touching and kissing.

Sexual harassment complaints are not supposed to end in bloody, public brawls like these to end with careers torpedoed, individuals distraught, and august institutions left looking like mud-wrestlers on a bad day.

In fact, most cases don’t finish this way. Usually the parties proceed informally and with some semblance of dignity to resolve their differences within their organisation. If the case is taken to an outside body, that, too, is usually confidential. So how is it that complaints in worldly institutions such as universities and governments, staffed as they are by well- educated people who should be versed in the sexual niceties of the ’90s, can end in such catastrophe?
Sexual harassment conciliators say this is more likely if the parties are left to stew for a long time with no resolution, becoming embittered; where organisations have no formal procedures set up to handle such complaints, leaving everyone floundering; or where the people in charge of the procedures see them more as a means to cover up the problem than as a safe way to explore and resolve it. At the heart of the matter, always, is the emotional maelstrom that develops from the reaction of the two parties combined with the (often unacknowledged) feelings of those who manage the institution.

“One way that management can fall down is to ignore it, and say there isn’t a problem,” says the federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Sue Walpole. “They get scared sometimes and . . . so just hope that it will go away. The biggest and most common mistake is that it gets personalised, rather than the employer just acknowledging that, `I have a dysfunctional employee relationship here and I have to deal with it.’ ” But a sexual harassment complaint is different to other grievances in the workplace; it is more intimate and more loaded because it is connected with an area of life sexual communication that can be difficult even in personal relationships.
“The minute you mention sex you get all that stuff that goes with it,” agrees Ms Walpole. “The discomfort, the embarrassment, the rape mythology `Was she asking for it? She had a short frock on. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time’ all those stereotypical notions about what’s appropriate behavior for women are translated into what’s supposed to be an investigation of an employment relationship.”
The truth about the Ormond College case, says one character in Garner’s book, The First Stone, is deep at the bottom of a well. The facts have never been satisfactorily decided. In 1991 two female students of the college complained of harassment by Ormond’s then master, Dr Alan Gregory. One claimed that he had locked the door of his study and made suggestive remarks to her, the other that he had squeezed her breast while dancing. To this day Dr Gregory strongly denies the claims.

The college’s council said that although it believed the students had acted in good faith, the master still had its confidence. In 1992 one of the students took the case to court, and Dr Gregory was found guilty of one count of assault. This verdict was overturned on appeal on the basis of insufficient evidence; the testimony boiled down to his oath against hers. In a second trial relating to complaints by the first student, Dr Gregory was found not guilty. A subsequent conciliation by the Equal Opportunity Commission resulted in the college offering a public apology in which it admitted it could have handled the case better. Dr Gregory subsequently resigned.

Author Garner has described the students’ actions as “ghastly punitiveness” and suggested that it was the result of a new puritanism in young feminists. But, according to an academic who was on the Ormond College council during the case, Dr Jenna Mead, the students went to police only after the college had proved reluctant to deal with the matter.

DR MEAD, now working at La Trobe University, said in an interview with the magazine RePublica in January that the college council had at no point set up a committee of inquiry into the claims. “One of the chilling moments happened very early on,” she said. “A member of the council looked up and, without noticing me, (this member regularly addressed council as `gentlemen’) said, `Oh yes, well this is just like the Orr case (In 1956 Professor Sydney Sparkes Orr was dismissed from the chair of
philosophy at the University of Tasmania after allegations he had seduced a female student). I knew him, you know . .

. well, we don’t want that to happen again.’ “So there were very real personal investments of acquaintance . . .

lingering disappointment over Orr’s fate and not much change in attitudes towards young women students.”
Yesterday, Dr Mead said: “I think the moral panic generated by (the case) has proved unhelpful and confusing. The important lesson here concerns the refusal of an institution to deal adequately with a complaint of sexual harassment within its own community . . . I think the college council failed both the young women students and Dr Gregory. It failed because the procedures it initiated didn’t respect the principles of equity, procedural fairness and justice. Instead the council’s actions now appear to have been old-fashioned, paternalistic and out of touch.” Ormond College preferred to make no comment.

Since then, Ormond and the other residential colleges have rewritten their procedures. Ormond’s policy against harassment is discussed in its handbook and emphasised at orientations.

But having a written policy that has been cited by the Affirmative Action Agency as a shining light has not saved James Cook University.

It, too, faces allegations that it makes obeisance to the form of sexual harassment policies but is not committed to their substance.

A secretary at the university’s Townsville campus has accused her boss, a professor of history, of having tried to force her into her bedroom during a visit to her house. The husband of the woman, Mrs Barbara van Houts, says the professor also told him that he had twice tried to get into Mrs van Houts’ pants and that he wanted a secretary who would sit on his lap. Mrs van Houts claims that after these alleged incidents the professor made her working life impossible and that she made the claims public after she was offered voluntary redundancy.

The professor denies the claims absolutely. The university has accused Mrs Van Houts of conducting a smear campaign and criticised her for failing to lay a formal complaint of harassment with the university.

But Mrs van Houts says that when she gave a nine-page list of complaints about her relationship with the professor to a university staffer, she was advised to remove two pages detailing sexual harassment claims. Several other women have joined her in saying that they no longer have faith in the university’s internal procedures, according to Susan Rees, a development worker with the Townsville Women’s Centre.

Ms Rees said a sexual harassment support and action group is being set up for at least another 10 women who say that they have been harassed at James Cook. The sexual harassment problem on campus, she says, is not a universal experience, but is too common. Ms Rees says it long ago gave rise to the joke that for women students there, “It’s f— or fail.”
The university, which would not speak to the media this week, maintained in a recent letter to all staff that Mrs van Houts’s union had been misrepresenting the case. The university said it was “totally committed to ensuring that all members of staff and students are treated fairly and equally when it comes to this issue”.

With the case of Police Minister Terry Griffiths in NSW, the procedural problems were clear: there were no formal channels for dealing with such allegations in ministers’ offices. A special inquiry was chaired by a former president of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, and the women then took their case to that state’s Anti- Discrimination Board.

The federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Ms Walpole, has long argued that the issue of whether politicians should continue to be exempt from sexual harassment legislation should be debated. “If anyone was trying to talk to Mr Griffiths early on about his (alleged) behavior, they would have been taking it upon themselves to do it,” she says.

A sexual harassment conciliator who did not wish to be named says, “I think the problem in cases like Terry Griffiths’, and also the Ormond case, is often when organisations draft their procedures they don’t have clear guidelines about what’s going to happen if a senior person is accused. A conciliator could worry about having to confront a CEO and say, `Sir, they don’t like it when you put your hand up their dress.”

First published in The Age.

Seizing opportunities in the world of business

Another speaker told the Women, Power and Politics conference that corporate women who feel discouraged about their career progress should take heart. They have now reached critical mass as a force in business. Karen Kissane reports.

SHEILA Penrose has trained herself not to nod and smile when male colleagues are speaking. Women make these encouraging signals to indicate that they are paying attention to the person speaking, she says, but men misinterpret them as agreement to what is being said.

She has also taught herself to feel comfortable with silence in a conversation – “There are ways that men use silence to take control; it tends to make women uncomfortable and they jump in.” Such things might sound trivial, she says, but they are important tricks of the trade for women who want to succeed, and “the higher you get in an organisation, the more these interpersonal things matter”.

Ms Penrose would know. She is executive vice-president, wealth management, of the Northern Trust Corporation in Chicago, a commercial bank and one of the five biggest managers of pension funds (superannuation) in the United States. While most of the Australian speakers at the conference have said they are frustrated about women’s lack of progress in business in this country, Ms Penrose says that in America women are now becoming key generators of wealth and key decision-makers about how it will be spent. In every field of business, she says, they have reached critical mass.

In her company, half the middle managers are women. “In the United States, women start businesses at a rate two to three times faster than men, and women-owned businesses are one of the fastest-growing segments of the American economy. In 1972, only 5 per cent of US firms were owned by women. They currently represent 40 per cent of business owners (6.5 million) and by the year 2000, women will own 50 per cent of all small businesses.”

As in Australia, many women in large organisations still feel locked out of senior management, and believe the glass ceiling will not shatter until the World War II generation retires, she says. But soon the “birth dearth” of the 1970s will guarantee that there will not be enough men to fill the potential management positions. This alone will broaden opportunities for women.

She says the changing needs of business in the ’90s are also to women’s advantage. Hierarchies are dead and the management qualities for which women are particularly noted, such as the ability to encourage participation, share power and information, enhance people’s self-esteem and get them excited about their work, are in demand. Ms Penrose says, “This, of course, does not mean that women managers are all sugar and sweetness, but rather that they mix these traits with business savvy and a firm hand to bring out the best in their employees. A woman is more likely to create a weblike power structure, as opposed to a hierarchy, where they are at the centre and can reach out personally for easy interaction with their employees.”

Ms Penrose says women are major purchasers in America and around the world, even for typically male products, and that their relative wealth and their power to decide about investments is increasing: “As women accumulate their own wealth, inherit from parents and outlive their husbands (by an average of seven years), they will hold much of the country’s wealth.”

First published in The Age.