The voices of rural men and those living in regional communities are missing from the discussion around the entrenched culture of workplace sexual harassment, a University of New England (UNE) researcher believes.
Sexual harassment expert Associate Professor Skye Saunders said while conducting her research she spoke with women who thought their breasts were being compared to the size of cattle teats while working in the cattle yards, and feared being labeled trouble-makers against a backdrop of small-town gossip.
"According to my preliminary research, sexual harassment is so normalised in rural Australia that men tend to completely underestimate its impact," Ms Saunders said.
"It may have been modelled by their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and neighbours, to the point where some men are genuinely unclear on what actually constitutes - and doesn't constitute - sexual harassment.
"Equally, sexual harassment can be so normalised that it is underreported by women and unopposed by some employers. So it's incredibly important that we consider the issue through the perspectives of women, employers, and also men.
"Based on the research I have undertaken so far, I don't believe that every single instance of hurtful behaviour has been intentional."
Having produced a landmark study of female perspectives in 2015, titled Whispers from the Bush: The Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women, Ms Saunders is about to head inland once again, this time as part of research into what remote men think.
It's critical to addressing the problem, she maintains, especially following on from the #MeToo movement and given that men hold the majority of leadership and management roles outside our metropolitan cities.
"Some myths about gender roles have become a bit stuck over time in rural Australia, especially in traditionally male-dominated workplaces," Ms Saunders said.
"But we need to recognise that women have moved naturally into these male domains.
"For some people this has created a sense of encroachment and discomfort.
"When this is the case, sometimes individual behaviour seeks to target women, subconsciously or consciously, to remind them that these are male spaces and that women should 'count themselves lucky to be there'. For women, this can lead to a sense of being an 'outsider' in their own workplace."
In an Australian-first, Ms Saunders is setting out to engage rural men in conversations about sexual harassment through a project called Boys from the Bush.
"I think it's important that we listen to raw and authentic, on-the-ground perspectives without judgement or blame, because this is a really important viewpoint to consider within the context of holistic cultural change," she says.
Sexual harassment in rural Australia, according to Ms Saunders, is distinctive and complex for two main reasons.
Firstly, the experiences of rural women are different and so, too, is the harassment they might encounter.
"For the Whispers study I spoke with women working in cattle yards who anticipated going to work and having their breasts compared to the size of cattle teats," she said.
"The work women do in our rural spaces is vastly different to that of women in metropolitan areas."
Secondly, the geography and social dynamics creates unique complications.
"Jobs for women can be incredibly precious in the bush and some may feel they have to retain their job at all costs," Ms Saunders said
"Their harassment commonly plays out against a backdrop of small-town gossip, where women may fear being labelled the town trouble-maker or someone who should be avoided because they make a fuss about 'little things'.
"This can make women doubly vulnerable in experiencing and then reporting sexual harassment. Damage to relationships, ostracism and isolation often result."
Through Boys from the Bush, Ms Saunders is determined to investigate what men make of all this and how they see their role, especially in this era of cultural reform.
"Yes, in many instances, sexual harassment has been a conscious - and frankly wicked abuse of power - something we have zero tolerance for," she said.
In some circumstances, men have grown up and into their workplace roles without ever actively contemplating the language or behaviour that has been normalised.Associate Professor Skye Saunders
"This doesn't excuse the behaviour, but it's something that we need to face up to together as we work towards cultural solutions.
"There can be a real disconnect between the many women performing their roles brilliantly and capably and them being subject to hurt, pain and humiliation."
As part of this bigger cultural solution, Ms Saunders believes that anonymously recording the legitimate feelings of men is fundamental to the holistic process.
"We have a lot of work to do in situating the facts, the law, the policy and the statistics around men and their perspectives on sexual harassment," she said.
"My hope is that men across a range of rural businesses and settings will feel relieved to be able to share their views and ideas, and to be a positive part of today's shift."
With sexual harassment widely under-reported by women in rural Australia, there is also an opportunity for men to consider the formal mechanisms that exist in their workplace and the possible impediments to women reporting incidents.
"It will be really interesting and useful to get men's practical input into some of the specific cultural problems," Ms Saunders said.
"For example, we know that sexual harassment is essentially about the exercise or abuse of power and that it tends to worsen over time and become more problematic and entrenched in the culture.
"We also know that social networks in rural communities can make it difficult for women to report. Whatever reporting path a woman takes, it requires grit.
"They may be at risk of small-town gossip, their kids being bullied at school or even being the subject of pub talk.
"Equally, we need to help women develop the competence and confidence to have difficult conversations, in the knowledge that the law and policy and culture is their foundation.
"Beyond that, anyone with oversight of staff in the workplace needs to make clear the standards of behaviour that are expected, have policies with clear avenues for confidential reporting, and regularly facilitate training.
All individuals are entitled to appropriate measures to ensure a safe and healthy work environment, and anything short of those tailored measures can render employers, directors and managers vicariously liable and potentially exposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages."
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