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Grace under fire

Grace under fire

By Karin Derkley

Legal Biography Women's Rights Workplace 


A film about rural women workers hopes to challenge the acceptance of sexual harassment in the bush.

When ANU College of Law academic Dr Skye Saunders sent out an invitation on the virtual equivalent of the “bush telegraph” for women to talk about their experiences in rural workplaces for a PhD research project, she was overwhelmed by the response.

As a young woman growing up in regional Orange in NSW, Dr Saunders had experienced behaviours she says were at the time “perplexing” and that later as a workplace discrimination lawyer she recognised as sexual harassment. She wondered whether other rural women were also experiencing such behaviours in their workplace.

“I put the word out on Facebook and via email and word of mouth, and the snowball effect was astonishing,” she says. “I got messages from women right across the country saying I’ve heard about your project, I’d really like to chat.”

As the responses came in, Dr Saunders plotted a series of journeys on a map of Australia to visit and interview 84 women employees and 23 rurally based employers – from Kangaroo Island to Roma in Queensland, to Kalgoorlie and Derby in Western Australia – over a six month period in 2011.

Her journeys via plane, train and automobile to visit her respondents at often very isolated rural places were an incredibly rewarding part of the research journey, she says. “It gave me an understanding of the context in which rural women operate and experience their daily realities.”

The women she visited on her travels struck her with their openness and generosity, she says. “They’d bring out the scones and tea or a glass of beer and they’d start to talk.”

“Initially they’d say to me they didn’t think they’d experienced anything significant. But as we worked through a series of questions, many realised they had witnessed or experienced behaviours that have been defined by the Australian Human Rights Commission as workplace sexual harassment.”

Of the 84 women Dr Saunders spoke to across a range of sectors, including mining, health, hospitality, retail and agriculture, 73 per cent acknowledged they had experienced or witnessed some form of sexual harassment. Of those who worked in the agricultural sector 93 per cent of women had experienced sexual harassment in the course of their work.

Such behaviours ranged from unwanted sexualised comments about their bodies, invitations or pressure to have sex, being exposed to pornographic material in the workplace, through to sexual assault and rape. One young woman working in the mining industry told of having to travel into town to find a toilet every time she had her period. Male colleagues urinated in her boots. A seemingly friendly colleague raped her, with his greatest concern that his wife and children might find out.

Despite recognising the behaviours as unacceptable, few of the women Dr Saunders interviewed said they felt able to report their experiences, with just 38 per cent saying they felt they could or would complain. “There is a tendency for the women to put up with it rather than challenge sexual harassment,” she says. “They were worried no one would believe them, and they were afraid of being thought a troublemaker.”

Hoping to draw attention to a problem that she says remains extraordinarily hidden, Ms Saunders published her research as a book Whispers in the Bush (see review in LIJ Jan/Feb 2017 p60), which gives voice to the women’s experiences and explores the reasons sexual harassment remains so prevalent in the bush.

Now, with the help of the Victorian Women’s Trust, the book has been turned into a film Grace Under Fire, with some of the interviewees who were quoted anonymously in the book speaking publicly about their experiences. It is produced by Isabelle Lane and Madeleine Martiniello. “We wanted to make it accessible to all audiences, not just an academic readership,” Dr Saunders says.

The film, like the book, explores why rural workplaces are so prone to sexual harassment.

Part of the problem, says Dr Saunders, is the isolation rural women face in their workplaces. But bush culture has also entrenched an acceptance of sexual harassment as the norm, she says.

“Who can you report to if you’re one woman in a team of six men, and your boss is best buddies with the bloke who is harassing you? How do you protect yourself from victimisation, and from small town community gossip at the local pub?” she says.

The sanctions on women speaking up about harassment are particularly difficult in rural Australia where there is a time-honoured and largely unquestioned tradition of male dominance, she says. “When you’ve got that tradition of the rugged, wild frontier man – the Man from Snowy River, or Crocodile Dundee – women can be made to feel like subordinate outsiders in their own workplaces.”

Very few rural workplaces, especially the smaller ones, have sexual harassment policies, she says. “And in the absence of clear policies to the contrary, that kind of behaviour is accepted as normal because that is what the boss allows and so people don’t think to challenge it.”

Dr Saunders hopes the 25-minute film, which will be made available online, will help women and men recognise such behaviour as unacceptable and unlawful, and embolden them to speak out against it. “We need people to realise that rural women are entitled, just as much as anyone else, to a safe workplace.”

Grace Under Fire will be launched by the Chief Justice of the Family Court Diana Bryant on 11 May at ACMI Studio 1.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by commentators are not necessarily endorsed by the Law Institute of Victoria Ltd (LIV). No responsibility is accepted by the LIV for the accuracy of information contained in the comments and the LIV expressly disclaims any liability for, with respect to or arising from any such views.

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