Interview with Dr Skye Saunders

Dr Skye Saunders is Australia’s foremost expert on sexual harassment in rural communities. She completed her PhD on the topic in 2015, publishing her thesis Whispers in the Bush: The Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women. In her book, Skye identifies a “cultural epidemic” of sexual harassment in remote and rural workplaces. Her research found that 73 per cent of employees had been sexually harassed by a colleague.

Skye has examined the unique characteristics of the bush which effect reporting rates of sexual harassment among women. She has also posited that the cultural narrative of the Australian bush, and its associated stereotypes of mateship and larrikin humour, foster male-dominated workplaces. Skye interviewed 107 people around Australia about their experiences and observations of sexual harassment at work. Her thesis gives voice to women with this lived experience.

Phyllida Behm has a chat to Skye about her work, its challenges, and why she does what she does.

I understand that you travelled with your kids, who were quite young, while you were interviewing women as part of your PhD. What was this like?

It was fantastic! My daughter was just preschool-age at the time. I always asked the participants I was interviewing for permission to bring her along, and they invariably agreed. Summer, my daughter, still has memories of knowing that she had to be quiet for the next hour or two, for what she called my “research conversations”. Summer feels like she was a part of that research journey and it was empowering for her, because she’s been able to understand what it’s like to connect with a variety of people from all around the country. Between the women I was interviewing and me, there would be this lovely natural rapport — they were often a mum or an aunt or a grandmother. Bringing my children with me created a mutual trust between myself and the people I was interviewing.

Did you sometimes find the interviews confronting?

Often our conversations were really harrowing. One observation I’d make, as a feminist researcher, is that there are lots of protections that should be, and are, in place for participants in very sensitive research. There are lots of ethical requirements which mean that you need to carefully brief your participant, ensure they understand, and carefully debrief them following the interview. None of that applies to the researcher. In retrospect, this was quite hard. I regularly heard stories of gendered harm, which ranged from humiliating sexual jokes to rape. In retrospect, I realise it wasn’t an easy process to self-debrief in accordance with the confidentiality requirements I was under.

While it was hard to hear those difficult stories, the overarching feeling I have about Whispers from the Bush is one of genuine gratitude. I’ve been honoured to connect with an outstanding array of Australian women in each of their respective fields, and to be trusted to give voice to their lived experiences.

In your work, you talk about the intersection between the Australian identity and mateship, and how this relates to women. Can you unpack these connections for me?

It’s a very complex issue, and it’s one that requires sensitivity in the context of redress. When we talk about the entrenchment of sexual harassment in the bush, what we’re actually talking about is gendered behaviour which plays out because people have been initiated into a particular way of being. Men are modelling their behaviour on the behaviour of their fathers, grandfathers and other mates. In turn, they’re modelling for their sons what future behavioural patterns look like. Unless we note, with a degree of compassion, that this modelling is in part about performing masculinity, then we’re missing a critical component of the broader conversation. Men are attempting to live up to a stereotype of strength, ruggedness and male dominance. We must be sensitive about re-setting the parameters of normal in that context. Sexual harassment of women in the workplace is bizarre. No one realises just how bizarre it is if you’re the frog in the boiling pot.

In Whispers from the Bush, I talk about three different key groups of stakeholders that have to be reached with different messages in order to effect meaningful cultural change in the workplace, in both a rural and non-rural context. First, helping women to set the new standard of normal by empowering them with knowledge and confidence, and with the support of other women. Second, blokes — that is all about heads and hearts. We have to explain that the treatment of women that we’ve seen over time is hurtful and harmful, and then look to understanding what the law says about this. Then, now that we understand how it hurts, and what the law says, the employers have to step in with their duty of care and their vicarious liability.

How are the challenges for rural women standing up against sexual harassment in the workplace different and more serious, than for women in the city?

The rural environment gives rise to a myriad of complexity that our sisters in the city don’t encounter on a daily basis. Some of those complexities would include the fear of small-town gossip, and the fear of being deemed a trouble-maker. There are fears in the context of farming families, who are reliant on supplementary income through the non-farmer, which is still often the woman. You’ve got the risk of a diminishing family budget if she risks her employment by drawing attention to sexual harassment. Additionally, many rural workplaces still don’t have policies against sexual harassment, so there is nothing that a woman can point to when arguing behaviour has been inappropriate. Sometimes the employer is part of the problem and there may not be an alternative person to report to. The path of least resistance is to simply grin and bear it. For some women, complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace might even risk the family property.

In the city, there are most often policies in place in big corporates. Complaining won’t usually pose an indefinite risk of livelihood for the family because there will be other options. Also, in the city, I think people have a more nuanced understanding of the reach of law. We see the law in the city — we see police officers, the courts, big firms, and Parliament — whereas in the country, you don’t. And if you do see your solicitor or people in the courtroom, it’s likely you’ll see your mates: they will be the same people.

What do you think other women —– women in my position, living in the city — can do to support women in the country?

Well just yesterday I joined the CWA [the Country Women’s Association]. I’m so pleased I did — already I’ve been welcomed into the Yass meeting group. I’ll be attending their CWA meetings now! We should take up every opportunity that we have to utilise our relatively privileged lens, and to understand that some of our privileges don’t apply to women in the bush. It’s also important to take opportunities to travel as widely as we can, and really see what life is like for women in the bush. Part of the research I did was about meeting people in their space. The interviews I had with women would not have been as authentic if I hadn’t travelled 500 kilometres on a dirt road to get to a particular place to see a particular person.

What does Whispers in the Bush mean to you personally?

I grew up in the bush with two very powerful women: my late mum and late grandmother. They were both really amazing women of the land. My grandmother was a person who poured her heart into looking after the shearers and the homestead, making honey jumbles from scratch; going into town to get butter was a big excursion. She did all this while battling kidney failure. Often a shipment from Westmead hospital with her supplies would be delivered into the back of a shearing shed. My grandfather would carry it into the house to a separate room, where she managed her own dialysis.

Later on, when I was 14, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had to have a double mastectomy. In a similar way to my grandmother, I saw her transported to Sydney for almost a year for radiation therapy at St Vincent’s hospital. That was really formative for me in understanding that even our regional hospital didn’t have the right facilities to be able to treat her. This meant a separation of our family: she was in Sydney, my sister was sent to north New South Wales because she was little, and I was at home with my dad. It was a big insight into the lack of services in the bush and gave me a heart for this project. I wanted to honour them both through the project. The spirit of this work is generational for me — it flows from my grandmother through to my daughter.