Dr Skye Saunders aims to end sexual harassment, discrimination

Dr Skye Saunders (pictured). Photo: Supplied.
Dr Skye Saunders (pictured). Photo: Supplied.

A gender equality advocate is leading the way to eliminating sexual harassment and discrimination in rural workplaces.

Author, speaker and associate Professor of Law, Dr Skye Saunders, grew up in central west, NSW, and believes there is much work to be done to provide clear education for employers/managers in the bush about duty of care for employees.

The former Orange resident released the groundbreaking ‘Whispers from the Bush’, in 2015 and is currently conducting research into sex discrimination.

Whispers from the Bush the first book of its kind that focused on the nature, pervasiveness and reporting of sexual harassment in rural Australian workplaces.

She conducted over 100 in-depth interviews with a majority of participants being women, who worked across a range of occupations in rural areas, including mining, cattle farming, shed hands, tour guides, police officers, nurses, bee-keepers and horticulturalists.

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“Of the female employees interviewed, 73 per cent indicated that they experienced sexual harassment in the course of their working life in rural Australia,” Dr Saunders said.

Some key findings from her research are shocking, including sexual harassment going largely under-reported by women.

“Sexual harassment has become normalised over time in many rural workplaces, such that the majority of women in Whispers from the Bush (63 per cent) preferred not to 'make a fuss' or 'rock the boat' by reporting sexual harassment,” Dr Saunders said.

She said there are a number of reasons why women would choose not to report sexual harassment, ranging from fear of being deemed a trouble maker or a liar, fear of victimisation, fear of job loss and fear of small town gossip. 

Another key finding from Whispers in the Bush was sexual harassment went largely unopposed by employers.

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Dr Saunders interviewed a cohort of rural employers/ senior managers as part of Whispers from the Bush.

“Eighty-three per cent of employers interviewed believed that sexual harassment was not a priority issue in the workplace, preferring that people 'just get on with it’,” she said.

There is much work to be done to provide clear education for employers/ managers in the bush about the nature of the duty of care for employees, Dr Saunders believes.

“For example, the practical steps that each employer needs to take to ensure that they are providing a working environment free from sexual harassment should be understood.

“These steps will vary, depending on the size and nature of the workplace. Ultimately, employers need to take all of the 'reasonable steps' at law to ensure that they are not vicariously liable for the sexual harassment of their employees- because this can mean exposure to significant legal damages for rural businesses.”

From her research, Dr Saunders also found that sexual harassment was under-estimated by men. 

“That is, blokes may not mean to be offensive or humiliating in engaging in say, sexualised banter. Sometimes, they are simply adopting patterns of engagement that become quite normal over the years,” she said.

“There might be a sense of 'she knows that we don't mean anything by it' when a woman is the subject of a sexualised joke in the yards, for example.

“In fact, for many blokes, the definition of what sexual harassment is and is not may not even be clearly understood.

“So we can approach these conversations with men from a position of empathy- dropping the blame or shame in favour of having productive, forward- looking conversations about strong leadership and healthy mateship at work.” 

Dr Saunders is currently writing a book project, nominally called 'Defying Gravity- Rising Above Sex Discrimination'.

“It is about the complaints process in Australia, including 'what it takes' to make a complaint, what that experience can be like for women and ultimately, if it's actually worth it,” she said.

“Whilst this project doesn't focus on the rural snapshot in the same way that 'Whispers from the Bush' does, there is a representation of the complexity of rural reporting that runs through this project, too.”