I’m With Her: A Play On Words To Start Conversations About Violence Against Women


Australia continues to see horrific reports of violence against women across the country, including reports of sexual harassment and assault in workplaces. In the university sector, a recent survey of workers found the rate of sexual harassment had increased by 52% over the past five years, with 52% also reporting they were encouraged to drop their complaints. The statistics and the stories may drag the issue into the public domain, but does anything change in our institutions, and across our societies? Which brings another, harder question: How do we change it? Associate Professor Caroline Fleay has a few ideas.

Sometimes you have to sit in the dark for a light to go on. I mean literally sit in the dark. I recently saw the play I’m With Her in Perth. It is now being performed by invitation at the World Congress of the International Society of the Performing Arts in front of hundreds of leaders in the performing arts from across the world.

I’m With Her is a galvanising conversation crafted by award-winning playwright Victoria Midwinter Pitt based on the words of eight prominent Australian women who share experiences of discrimination and abuse.

It also speaks of resistance and solidarity. And it provides an important space in which to think through what needs to be done.

The play features eight local women dressed in suffragette white, each reading the words of one of the following women – counter-terrorism expert Anne Aly MP, sex worker activist Julie Bates, botanist Marion Blackwell, world champion surfer Pam Burridge, bartender Nikki Keating, Catholic nun Patricia Madigan, anthropologist and Indigenous leader Marcia Langton and Australia’s only female prime minister, Julia Gillard.

Playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi speaks of the power of theatre “as a moment where a community can get together to tell a story. And this story becomes a moment of healing or a moment of hope, or even a moment of just being together”.

For myself, and undoubtedly many others who were in the audience, this play provides such transformative moments. It is a space for solidarity where simply being present becomes an act of alliance with the women who have shared their stories. Through their stories, we are reminded of the importance of solidarity in fighting discrimination and abuse. And we are reminded of resistance.

The still darkness of the theatre and the simplicity of the play’s set amplifies the impact of the women’s spoken words. Professor Marcia Langton’s truth-telling includes the devastating statistic that:

“Indigenous women are eleven times more likely to die due to assault than other Australian women.”

She repeats this twice.

She demands that we recognise the colonialist underpinning of this country, and the structural discrimination within it, in order to fully understand this violence.

Professor Langton’s words speak of the solidarity among the network of Indigenous women who work alongside each other in response to this violence. It reminds me of women such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner June Oscar and the collective project Wiyi Yani U Thangani she has spearheaded to change the conversation about violence against First Nations’ women. As she says:

“It is within our actions, every day, that we bring the world we want into being.”

It also reminds me of Professor Hannah McGlade, now a member of the First Nations Steering Committee guiding the development of a First Nations National Plan to address violence to Aboriginal women and children. These are women who have long engaged in deep analysis, truth-telling and collective action in response to abuse and discrimination.

I’m With Her addresses the importance of understanding the complexities that underpin discrimination and abuse, and the importance of acting in solidarity with those who continue to endure it. As Professor Langton says:

“History is made by those who show up.
Show up.”

Other experiences in the play are of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, and collective efforts to stop it. Bartender Nikki Keating’s words speak of the experience of solidarity when she learned about the findings of a union survey into sexual harassment in the hospitality industry:

“The results were so dark. It was almost unbelievable. But actually, it was real for the first time, what was happening to me. It was happening to everyone.”

Learning of other people’s experiences matters. It can legitimise our own experiences and it can also galvanise us to take action alongside others. Nikki went on to be featured in the United Voice Hospo Voice ‘Respect is the Rule’ campaign, which has led to workers in the hospitality industry across the country calling for their workplaces to be free of sexual harassment.

As Nikki reflects in the play, the harassment and assault is yet to abate, but the acts of solidarity she has since received from co-workers to call out this appalling behaviour in their workplace are profound.

People in many workplaces continue to face sexual harassment. In a survey spanning five years up until 2022, the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 41 percent of women and 26 percent of men had been sexually harassed in their workplace. These figures are higher for people working in male-dominated workplaces, and they are also higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers, folks from the LGBTQIA+ community, people with a disability, and young people.

Alarming statistics continue to be evident in the sector I work within. Universities Australia’s 2022 National Student Safety Survey found one in six students had experienced sexual harassment since commencing their studies. One in 20 had been sexually assaulted. Female, transgender and non-binary students were much more likely to have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the past twelve months than male students.

The National Tertiary Education Union’s 2023 survey of Australian university employees found that the rate of sexual harassment has increased 52 percent since the last survey in 2018. 38 percent of women reported experiences of sexual harassment, and 50 percent of all surveyed were aware of others who had been sexually harassed. Of those who had experienced sexual harassment, only 13 percent made a formal complaint and 24 percent an informal complaint.

For many people, universities are not safe spaces. Like many other workplaces, much action is needed.

In a welcome development, since December 2022 organisations and businesses in Australia now have a positive duty under the Sex Discrimination Act to take steps to prevent sex discrimination and sexual harassment in their workplaces. This means “actively preventing workplace sexual harassment, sex discrimination and other relevant unlawful conduct, rather than responding only after it occurs”.

Active prevention includes the development of processes in which people can safely raise their concerns regarding sex discrimination and sexual harassment.

As the NTEU’s 2023 report highlights, many respondents who either formally or informally reported their experience of sexual harassment in the university sector were dissatisfied with the response. Following their complaint:

“52% were encouraged to drop the issue, 48% said no action was taken, 45% were labelled a troublemaker and 44% reported negative consequences for them from their employer, including denial of promotion, transfer, reassignment to less favourable work and/or scheduling changes.”

There are clearly many people who feel silenced or compelled to leave their situation, increasing the mental and physical toll of sexual harassment.

There can also be negative consequences for people who witness or hear about a case of workplace sexual harassment and take action in response. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s five year survey found that:

“One in 6 bystanders (16%) had been ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues after taking action, with a similar proportion (15%) labelled as a troublemaker.”

It is striking that there continue to be people who experience sexual harassment, as well as those who witness or hear about it, who are then victimised or called a troublemaker for reporting it.

The introduction of the positive duty imposing a legal obligation on employers to actively prevent sex discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace is an opportunity for change. But much more needs to be done.

Bringing about change in our institutions, and across our societies, requires significant cultural transformation. It requires people to stand in solidarity, raise their voices, share their stories, and demand change.

This is the message of I’m With Her.

As the women ask at the beginning of the play:

“Is this ever going to change?
Is this just the way things are?
Do we accept this?
Do we?”

Their answer is no, we will not.

I’m with them.

Caroline Fleay is Associate Professor at the Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University, and has taken a leading role in a range of human rights campaigns and community groups over the past three decades.