I grew up on a small property in Central Western NSW. Like so many rural women, I have memories of being humiliated in my teens by sexualised behaviours in public spaces. I remember being incredibly embarrassed because one pack of lads noticed that I have a slightly protruding sternum and so drew gleeful conclusions that I had ‘an extra boob for the taking.’ (I became known to them as ‘Three Sisters’ which really was mortifying). My response then was to do nothing and, I am ashamed to say, to muster up the odd fake laugh at my own expense.
Sexual harassment is a common occurrence for 73 percent of the 107 rural Australian women I interviewed as part of my national research project, Whispers from the bush: Sexual Harassment in Rural Australian Workplaces. Staggeringly, 93 percent of the women employed on farms and stations reported being the subject of cruel, sexualised behaviour in the ordinary course of their day-to-day work.
While sexual harassment isn’t unique to rural workplaces, it’s particularly problematic for women in the bush as they tend to work in relative isolation, value their jobs in a particularly competitive rural workforce and are situated in smaller communities where patriarchal values are often more deeply entrenched.
During my research, I was inundated with messages from country women of various occupations (there were jillaroos, police officers, shearers, barmaids, nurses and vineyard workers, for example) and spanning different age groups and cultural backgrounds. I conducted the majority of the interviews face-to-face, taking place right across Australia in small towns from Kalgoorlie to Coonabarabran.
It didn’t take long for a snapshot of rural working women to develop and for some seriously troubling data to emerge. The type of sexual harassment encountered by rural women ranged from being subjected to inappropriate jokes to being exposed to pornography in tea rooms or trucks, to unwanted touching such as grabbing a woman’s chest or, in the most extreme cases – rape at the workplace.
One woman spoke of having to camp overnight with her male colleagues in the course of a cattle run and being kept awake as they gathered near her and watched pornographic films on a portable DVD player. Another woman described the wolf whistles endured daily whenever she gets changed in an open field with a group of male colleagues before entering a mine. Yet another woman put up with male colleagues urinating in her work boots as an almost daily occurrence.
It’s much harder to report sexual harassment in the bush, since inappropriate behaviours can often occur where there are no witnesses. Victims may also be afraid to speak out for fear of being ridiculed or deemed a ‘troublemaker’, they may worry about putting their jobs at risk, becoming the subject of community gossip or having no proper avenue to report the harassment.
Sadly, the effect of not speaking out about sexual harassment is that a culture of tolerance or acceptance can develop. I believe it’s time to start a national conversation about the sexualised treatment of women in the rural workplace, to reassess our expectations as women operating in traditionally male dominated cultures and to challenge behaviours that do not meet our expectations and legal rights.
My six-year-old daughter recently came home from school in a state of apoplexy because she was cross about a little boy’s breach of the school’s ‘hands off, feet off’ policy. She explained that she had been grabbed as she dangled from the monkey bars. When I asked her how she handled it, her flat palm determinedly projected itself towards my face in demonstration and shouted: “Stop! I don’t like it!”
The boy apparently said sorry. This level of assertiveness and the development of a zero-tolerance culture of sexual harassment is our goal. It is time to turn up the volume on the quietest whispers from Australia’s heartland.
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