The drover’s wife c.1945
oil on canvas
51.5 x 61.5 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
A gift to the people of Australia by Mr and Mrs Benno Schmidt of New York and Esperance, Western Australia through the American Friends of the Australian National Gallery 1987
© Estate of Russell Drysdale
I had to ask for access to a bathroom once a month because I had my period! So eventually instead of access to a bathroom, they got me access to a Toyota so that I could drive away to a toilet. So the entire crew knew exactly when I was cycling every single month. And … they used to piss in the connecting pipes for me to discover when I got back from the drive. And looking back on it now I also realise that the blokes were also pissing on my boots when I was gone – I see now but at the time I was just so confused and baffled by it all. – Female miner, aged 21
Australian women are enduring a cultural epidemic of workplace sexual harassment in remote and rural workplaces – the experience is rife, rampant and as hard to contain as any infectious disease. Whispers from the Bush – The Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women is the first book to focus upon the nature, pervasiveness and reporting of sexual harassment in rural Australian workplaces. Drawing upon 107 interviews conducted with rurally located employees and employers about their experiences and observations of sexual harassment at work, it shines a light upon a phenomenon largely hidden or minimised by silence, distance and an atmosphere of ‘saturated masculinity’. The book seeks to give voice to the ‘whispers from the bush’ by exploring themes such as:
- the impact of male dominance and mateship on the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment within the rural workplace;
- the complex survival behaviours adopted by many rural women in response to sexual harassment as it occurs – most surprisingly, extending to women blaming women;
- rural employee and employer attitudes towards the disclosure of sexual harassment; and
- the limited reach and effectiveness of laws against sexual harassment in rural Australia.
The book concludes by making practical recommendations for the commencement of national dialogue about sexual harassment in rural Australia, towards a cultural adoption of zero-tolerance.
Dr Skye Saunders in the news…
- ‘The blokes were pissing on my boots’: MTR launches new book exposing workplace harassment of rural women, Melinda Tankard Reist blog, 20 March 2016 Read full article…
- Women feel like intruders – new book reveals extent of sexual harassment in the rural workplace, ANU College of Law News, 10 March 2016 Read full article…
- Fiona Nash’s ‘I’m a girl’ suggests you can’t be taken seriously, The Australian, 18 February 2016 Read full article…
- ANU study finds most women working in remote areas subject to sexual harassment, ABC Rural, 8 May 2015 Read full article/Listen to Interview…
- Research reveals culture of sexual harassment in rural workplaces , Central Western Daily, 27 April 2015 Read full article…
- Rural Australia’s sexual harassment ‘epidemic’, ABC Radio National, Bush Telegraph, 5 November 2013 Read full article/Listen to Interview…
Foreword by David Morrison, Former Chief of the Australian Army
About the Author
1. Reduced to Silence
2. Listening to the Distant Whispers
3. The Dramatic Backdrop of the Bush and Gendered Harm Within It
4. ‘It’s All A Bit Different Out ‘Ere …’: Special Characteristics of the Bush and Their Effect on Reporting Rates
5. ‘When the Boys Come Out to Play …’ Sexual Harassment and the Impact of Male-dominated Working Environments
6. ‘So Help Me, God …’ A Comparison of (Un)Successfully Litigated Sexual Harassment Complaints from Rural and Urban Australia
7. ‘Fit In or F#$@ Off!”: The (Non) Reporting of Sexual Harassment in Rural Workplaces
8. ‘Just the Boys Havin’ Fun!’ The Nature, Pervasiveness and Manifestations of Sexual Harassment in Rural Australia
9. ‘Stripping Off the Layers …’ Sexual Harassment ‘Survival’ Behaviours in Rural Australian Workplaces
10. ‘A New “Coo-ee”‘! – An Australian Bush Transformation
11. Conclusion: ‘From Whispers from the Bush to Voices of Hope’
Appendix 1 – Interview Questions for Rural Employees
Appendix 2 – Interview Questions for Rural Employers
Saunders paints a dismal picture of the life of a rural woman at work, under siege from a ‘cultural epidemic’ of sexual harassment. She describes a pervasive hostility towards women in the workplace, fostered by the ‘rampant maleness’ of Australian bush mythology and traditional male dominance in the workforce. Pornography, verbal harassment and physical sexual harassment are used as tools to remind women where their place is. Cultural and community norms minimise offensive acts. Faced with few employment options, geographical isolation, inadequate support services and the threat of corrosive small town gossip, women feel their only option is to ‘suck it up’ – keep quiet and tolerate abhorrent behaviour. …
This book fills a gap in the existing body of knowledge around sexual harassment. It illustrates how dimensions of gendered harms can be better understood through applying a geographical and cultural lens. Were it not for this study, the low levels of reporting and few adjudicated cases could be interpreted to mean that sexual harassment was experienced similarly by both rural and city women. Yet it is starkly clear there is a long way to go to give rural women the safe working environments they are legally entitled to. This book has left me with a deepened understanding of the complex and powerful dynamics rural women negotiate, and a profound appreciation of the courage required to turn a whisper into a shout. Read full review…
Eliza Ginnivan, Alternative Law Journal, Vol 42:3 2017
… should be mandatory reading for male (and female) employers. It provides a great list of practical recommendations for addressing and reducing the serious harms caused by sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, and particularly in rural workplaces.
Whispers examines the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment at work in rural and remote areas of Australia. In writing the book, Skye travelled across the nation to interview 107 rural employees and employers about their experience of, and exposure to, sexual harassment. She identified a clear ‘blame the victim’ mentality on the part of both employers and (female) co-workers in respect of sexual harassment, and also found it was a phenomenon which is largely minimised or hidden by silence, distance and an atmosphere of ‘saturated masculinity’. Skye’s book addresses the special characteristics of the bush and the impact of those qualities on the occurrence and reporting of sexual harassment. It also provides a good analysis of the nature, pervasiveness and manifestations of sexual harassment in rural Australia, as well as of litigated sexual harassment complaints, and explores ways to ‘re- invent’ male behaviour in the bush. Read full review…
Allison Ballard, Ethos, ACT Law Society, March 2017
This book is a product of 107 interviews conducted across Australia with rurally located employees and employers about their experiences and observations of sexual harassment at work. It is a sombre reminder that there is much to do to ensure all Australians are afforded the protections long established in our legal system, since at least the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SA).
Conclusions of Dr Saunders’ research include that:
• 73 per cent of employees said they had been sexually harassed by a colleague
• 70 per cent said they had witnessed a colleague being harassed in the workplace
• 93 per cent of women in the agricultural industry said they had been harassed.
These numbers, while alarming, will not be the enduring feature of this research. The strength of Dr Saunders’ work lies in the accounts given by those who have experienced sexual harassment. The interview excerpts make for uncomfortable reading, and in many instances, are heartbreaking. Empirical legal research too often is statistical. It can be more powerful, especially in this area and related fields, to report on human experience.
The book is for those who are seeking an on-the-ground account of the reach and limits of anti-discrimination law.
Leigh Howard, InPrint, Law Institute Journal Victoria, Jan/Feb 2017
This book makes two original contributions to an understanding of the factors that contribute to sexual harassment in rural workplaces – first, it presents original data from interviews with rural employees and employers, and secondly, it draws a number of trends from a comparative analysis of workplace sexual harassment cases in rural and urban Australia. …
Based on her findings, Dr Saunders questions the reach and effectiveness of laws such as the Sex Discrimination Act in rural Australia and recommends that the law be “translated” into plain English to enable rural men to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable workplace behaviour.
… it is certainly an interesting read for lawyers practising in employment and discrimination law. Read full review…
Sarah Pitney, Australian Law Journal, 2016, 90
Saunders’ research has identified specific industry workers who are particularly at risk and this threat is not spread evenly across rural employment areas. She has demonstrated that higher education levels are both a protection and a guide to appropriate responses when facing sexual harassment. She has also shown that lack of female solidarity contributes to the negative impact of sexual harassment. … this work is original and timely with important policy implications and now out of the Academy and into the public domain. Knowledge of circumstances cannot necessarily prevent events from taking place but they are the first and best way to start. Read full review…
Mickey Dewar, Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2016
Remote and regional Australia is often depicted in popular culture as a place of male power and domination, which has become its iconic identity. Women are painted as ‘alien others’ with all the attendant consequences of disempowerment this inevitably brings. This is the central theme of Whispers from the Bush: The Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women, by Skye Saunders.
… There can be no doubt this publication achieves all it sets out to do with great clarity. It employs a combination of both qualitative and quantitative analysis to its subject area. The ‘whispers from the bush’ are voices taken from 107 in-depth interviews with rural and remote participants; 84 rural- based employees, and 23 rural-based senior managers from both NSW and Western Australia. Elements of traditional doctrinal research together with intensive review of relevant literature are skillfully integrated. Read full review…
Anne Gorman, Precedent, Australian Lawyers Alliance, July/August 2016
… Skye Saunders’ pioneering research publication speaks volumes about the extent of the ‘cultural epidemic’ of sexual harassment in rural Australian workplaces. [It] draws on original research to examine the entrenched sexual harassment culture pervading the lives of working women. A total of 107 interviews conducted with rurally located participants deliver results that are both staggering and heartbreaking, leaving the reader with far more than a whisper of a problem in desperate need of redress.
Despite the enormous quantity of data the book has to offer, Saunders’ triumph is her ability to siphon through the information and bring the most salient points to the reader’s attention in a thought-provoking way. It is a credit to the author that a topic so often drenched in statistics preserves the personality and experiences of those who contributed to it. At times the book is hard to put down, at other times the weight of personal stories can make it hard to read at all. The responses of the interviewees can, at times, make for uncomfortable reading, but play an important part in giving a voice to those who have remained voiceless for so long. Read full review…
Richard Bell, Bar News, NSW Bar Association, Winter 2016
“I commend Dr. Saunders for giving voice to women in rural and regional areas whose lives have been harmed by sexual harassment.
As the daughter of a farming family in rural Victoria who launched out into the world of journalism through my local newspaper, it is only fully now, decades later, that I look back and see the entrenched sexism that, being young and lacking the language to describe, I didn’t know how to deal with. The senior editor’s hand on my leg in his car (taking me ‘under his wing’ as a work experience student), the ruler up my skirt (made to feel I’d asked for it and told to stay out of the ‘lay out’ room where the man worked, though I had to walk through it to get to the toilet), the sexually loaded jokes about my body, descriptions of sex acts I didn’t understand (especially when a male radio announcer friend dropped by), the male bonding over assessing the bodies of any woman passing through the building, the porny calendars on the walls of the print room, and so on. My few female co-workers didn’t object. You were expected to joke along with the boys, not to be a pain or ‘hung up’. To be both young, unformed in feminist thinking and not knowing I had any rights, made speaking out almost impossible.
As well, this was a community where the second class status of women was not named. The indigenous woman married to a white man who turned up to work on the family property with a black eye most days, the wives of certain migrant workers never allowed to leave their homes, the mothers in my street struggling to raise their children with family income downed in a partner’s beers.
One of the first pieces I wrote as a cadet journalist was about the opening of a women’s refuge in my town. These experiences were the seedlings of my later feminist activism.
So I welcome this book. When Dr. Saunders told me about it, my first thoughts were: at last. May Whispers From The Bush break the silence of rural women. May it empower and strengthen them to speak out and no longer put up with mistreatment. May it contribute to solidarity among our sisters in dusty, remote places. All of us who live or lived in these places – and have parts of our heart remaining there even when we have moved on – owe Dr. Saunders a debt of gratitude.”
Melinda Tankard Reist, Advocate for Women and Girls