Research reveals culture of sexual harassment in rural workplaces

Former Orange resident Dr Skye Saunders says there is an ingrained culture of sexual harassment in rural workplaces.

An 'ingrained culture' of sexual harassment exists in rural workplaces, research conducted by former Orange resident Dr Skye Saunders has found.

In one of the first studies of its kind, the Australian National University senior lecturer interviewed 107 people, mainly female employees in rural and isolated workplaces, on their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The research showed 73 per cent of employees said they had been sexually harassed by a colleague, while 70 per cent said they had witnessed a colleague being harassed in the workplace. 

In the agricultural industry, 93 per cent of women said they had been harassed.

“There is a tendency to minimise the problem of sexual harassment, but it is a very real problem we need to address,” Dr Saunders said.

She said there were a myriad of factors unique to rural workplaces that led to the “alarming” figures.

“The majority of women I spoke to had the mantra that its better to fit in or f*ck off,” Dr Saunders said.

“People don’t want to be the talk of the town, they don’t want to be victimised for making a statement. A lot of women are afraid of losing their jobs over speaking out.

“A lot of employers tended to be in charge of very large, isolated cattle farms and these issues weren’t often high on the list of things to talk about . If you’re talking about a community that’s in the middle of a drought, sexual harassment is not on the top of the list of issues to deal with.”

Dr Saunders said grassroots education was the key to changing the culture in rural workplaces.

“Rural men need to appreciate there is very real damage that is caused by making comments of a sexual nature,” she said.

“The women themselves, their voice is what really matters. Be courageous enough to say stop, I don’t like this. Women also need to understand they need to support each other and stop this victimisation of each other from happening.

“Employers have to take a zero tolerance policy. When they see it happening, hopefully they would say something.”

The research was conducted as part of Dr Saunders’ PhD with the University of Canberra, which she recieved at a ceremony at the end of March.

She said she was inspired to create this “work of the heart” by her late mother Sandy Alchin, who taught her to have “a heart for people who were disadvantaged”, and by her father Clyde Alchin, who has spent his life working in the agricultural industry.

Now her PhD is completed, Dr Saunders, who is also the director of Masters of Legal Practice at ANU, said her next step was to set up a consultancy service for rural workplaces to help tackle the unmanaged problem of sexual harassment.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team