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Three years ago, outgoing commissioner Ken Lay ordered a review into sexual harassment and predatory behaviour at Victoria Police. The latest audit shows that while determined moves are being made, a toxic culture is hard to stamp out. By Jess Hill.

Tackling Victoria Police’s culture of misogyny

The acting assistant commissioner of Victoria Police, Lisa Hardeman.
Credit: AAP Image / David Crosling

She had just started at a new job when a colleague began to pursue her, relentlessly. She told her manager how trapped she felt. He made her feel like an idiot for raising it. One night, after a work event, “I got home and into the house and I actually thought, ‘Phew, I made it safely through that,’ ” she recalls. “The next thing I knew was that he was inside my house.” Her vision started to blur, and she couldn’t fight back. She is sure he drugged her. Then, he raped her.

Imagine waking up the next morning, feeling violated and terrified, and knowing you can’t call the cops. Because the man who raped you is a cop. And so are you.    

This testimony was just one of the horrifying accounts published in a 2015 review into sex discrimination, harassment and predatory behaviour within Victoria Police. The review – conducted independently by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) – was commissioned by former police chief Ken Lay, one of his last actions in the job. Lay didn’t want a private report – he wanted the results to be public. “We need change more quickly,” he explained. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

The results were damning. Forty per cent of the 1900 female members of the police surveyed said they had experienced harassment (the community average is 33 per cent). Some had seen far worse. Female officers described being preyed on by their superiors – and being too afraid to report it. Their stories were shockingly explicit: “One night [on a work-related trip] the inspector was in the next room and calling that he was thinking of me and masturbating and ejaculating on the wall between our rooms. I was really frightened with all those guys with a gut full of grog.”

Underlying this predatory behaviour was a virulent culture of machismo and misogyny. “ ‘She has big tits’ … ‘She gave a blow job to the boss’ … ‘She only got the job because she’s a slut’ … that sort of conversation is a dime a dozen in this organisation,” said one female member. “They would sit around the muster room and watch porn,” said another. “Men run this organisation, and they run it to suit other men,” said yet another. “Women get intimidated, stood over, spoken over, excluded and overlooked – all day, every day – in this job.” Though the review quoted several male members saying sexual harassment was not a problem, other men expressed their disgust. Of the review, one male participant said: “[The] initiative on this has salvaged for me some pride in this organisation. Please don’t let me down.”

These attitudes weren’t just a problem for women inside the force. They were the same attitudes domestic abuse victims encountered from police who didn’t believe them, colluded with their abuser and refused to take their fears seriously. “They don’t get violence against women,” said one female police member. “They often say, ‘She’s a frequent flyer’, ‘It’s a false report’ and ‘She’s having us on.’ They don’t get the gender analysis, the violence and the impact. They don’t think it’s their job – they just get the bad guy.”

But over the past 20 years the “bad guys” have really changed. Policing doesn’t, for the most part, look like the guns drawn, fence-jumping days of old – 40-60 per cent of Victoria Police’s time is spent responding to domestic abuse. This police work requires something entirely different: sensitivity, maturity and emotional intelligence. It requires men to take women’s fears seriously.

Ken Lay was keenly aware of this when he commissioned the VEOHRC report – it was a big part of his decision to make the investigation public. As the report noted, “One of the critical questions for Victoria Police was this: ‘How can we effectively respond to family and gendered violence if our own organisation is not a safe place for women to come to work?’ ”

In the four years since, Victoria Police has set out on an ambitious program of structural and attitudinal change. With the review’s third audit released this week, much of the coverage has centred on the persistently high rates of sexual harassment. But Acting Assistant Commissioner Lisa Hardeman says there’s a good news story in here, too – or, at least, some hopeful signs. “Eighty per cent of the 20 recommendations have been actioned to a moderate or high percentage in just a bit over three years,” she says. “I think we really need to be proud of the way that we have tackled that challenge.”

There have been structural reforms: a move, for example, towards enabling women and men to work flexible hours. This has seen an uptake increase in the past 18 months – 11 per cent for women and 9 per cent for men. Said one member: “I’ve seen a change … you see males more openly accessing parental leave, people in formal leadership roles accessing flexibility because of childcare responsibilities. This is very different from what happened in the past.”

“We see that is absolutely critical,” says VEOHRC Commissioner Kristen Hilton, “because the stereotype of a police member in the past has very much been a male worker, full-time.” Hardeman points to a senior female constable, 18 years on the job, who had long been prevented from advancing because of her need for flexible hours. Under the new policy, she was able to job-share. “She just recently got a job as a sergeant.”

One male member said the changes had given him licence to mentor female members of the force. “Previously … you had to be wary of your own career if you openly started to push women’s rights. It would be career ending, but that is not the case anymore, it has really changed,” he said. “I do a lot of mentoring, particularly with women who are looking to be upgraded. Two years ago, I could not have done that.”

Predictably, there has also been backlash. As the audit noted, many employees were “[internalising] simplistic messages” including “if you have a vagina, you’ll be promoted” and “if you’re a male, you’re a predator”. Said another member, “We are a hierarchical, paramilitary organisation for a reason. All of a sudden people are a victim and we’re just telling them to do their job. We’re not making coffees in this job.”

These entrenched, reactive attitudes raise far more complex questions. How do you persuade men in positions defined by power, control and violence to change their hearts and minds? How do you persuade men who’ve long worn misogyny as a protective suit of armour to take it off? How, when these men have been rewarded for the very qualities that are now off limits – overt displays of sexual prowess, sexism and racial prejudice – do you get them to see that these changes will benefit them, too?

“Part of that is role modelling in the organisation,” says Hilton. “You really need senior leaders to step up with an element of humility … to be a bit brave, and say, ‘It’s actually all right to show some vulnerability. There’s a strength in it.’ ”

As Hilton makes clear in her report, this culture hasn’t just harmed women; it’s harmed men, too. “It has reinforced a rigid, hypermasculine policing identity and caused cumulative harm to men and women who have witnessed the culture and shut off parts of themselves to adapt to it.”

Reforming this hypermasculine culture will take a lot more than simply getting men to reconnect with their vulnerability and support women’s empowerment in the workplace. “I think until the organisation really properly comes to terms with just how harmful that culture has been in the past – and elements of it still are – then it’s very difficult to make much progress,” says Hilton. “[They need to] reconcile and do some individual and organisational healing.” Hilton is not wearing rose-coloured glasses – she knows how hard this reform will be. “It’s 21,000 employees over 600 different sites. It has a 167-year history. It will take time and sustained effort to change that.”

But as Ken Lay sensed back in 2014, changing the culture of policing is urgent – not just for the women inside the force but also for the women and children who rely on the force for protection. After the coronial inquest into the domestic homicide of Victorian woman Joy Rowley in 2011, her children put out a blistering statement. “All our friends think you call the police when you’re in danger and they help you,” it read. “We know that’s not how it works. It’s like Russian Roulette – sometimes you get someone who will help. Sometimes, like Mum, you get someone who doesn’t take you seriously.”

The Rowley family were devastating in their clarity about what needed to change at Victoria Police. “The findings make it sound like the police just need to change forms and policies,” they said. “It’s the culture and the lack of accountability of police that needs to change.”

Changing policies and protocols is easy. Changing culture is hard. But at least Victoria Police is trying.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "Arresting misogyny". Subscribe here.

Jess Hill
is an investigative reporter and the author of See What You Made Me Do.