Aviation

Report finds widespread discrimination and sexual harassment amongst air traffic controllers

Ali Coulton

Ali Coulton

A toxic culture of workplace bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment among air traffic controllers could be endangering the lives of travellers, according to a new report.

The report was written by former Federal Court justice Anthony North QC and was presented to the government-owned aviation corporation, Airservices Australia.

In the report, North presents research findings from a YouGov Galaxy survey of 524 air traffic controllers which found 46 per cent of respondents, or 241 employees of Airservices Australia, experienced bullying, discrimination, or sexual harassment in the past 10 years.

43 per cent of those who experienced discrimination (17 per cent) cited sex as the basis, and 50 per cent of those who experienced sexual harassment (6 per cent) cited unwelcome and/or unnecessary comments about an individuals body or clothing, while an alarming 33 per cent cited sexual advances.

The findings also indicated the toxic behaviour was directed significantly more towards women (76 per cent) than men (40 per cent), with 53 per cent of discrimination coming from primary managers.

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Airservices Australia has responded to the report dismissing the idea its workplace culture has an effect on safety and said its safety performance is among the best in the world.

“There is no factual basis for these false and alarmist claims. When our safety performance is compared against our peers, we compare exceptionally well,” it said in a statement.

The federal agency said it is committed to providing a “safe, respectful and inclusive workplace that fosters diversity and values different genders, backgrounds, cultures and work and life experiences”.

The statement also makes reference to a strict code of conduct prohibiting all forms of bullying and harassment enforced through regular refresher training.

However, one respondent to North’s research said internal attempts to address the problem through education were “laughed at and dismissed, as management are seen as the biggest offenders” with another saying the issues start “right at the top of the tree”.

“Whether deliberately or not, Airservices has cultivated a culture of fear that results in under or non-reporting of bullying instances,” one respondent said.

“The fear of retribution and nepotism ensures that people are loath to report instances of bullying that are not acceptable but do not fall into the extreme range.”

North makes reference in the report to an internally commissioned study from Airservices Australia conducted in February which reveals widespread inappropriate behaviour towards women including sexist remarks and “Ogling of women in the vicinity of the tower using tower binoculars.”

The internal research also found that a whopping 93 per cent of employees at Sydney Tower had observed and/or experienced disrespectful behaviour, most commonly “discrimination, sexist comments, racist comments, undermining and derogatory remarks made about other members, swearing, and yelling.”

The company’s air traffic management manager Roger Chambers addressed a letter to staff once the research was completed, but his response was simply to ask them to reflect on how they responded to the behaviour and to challenge incidences in the future.

In response to North’s report, Airservices Australia has asked Australia’s former sex discrimination commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick conduct a broad and independent review of its workforce culture.

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