Sexual harassment ‘ignored’ in rural workplaces, despite global #MeToo movement

The head of a rural women’s group has warned rural and remote workplaces are producing “horrific” cases of sexual harassment and assault.

Key points:

  • Jackie Jarvis says animal welfare is often put before the welfare of female employees
  • She says sexual harassment in rural areas is used “almost like a test”
  • The RRR Network is helping female workers access independent mediation

Rural, Regional, Remote Women’s Network of Western Australia (RRR Network) CEO Jackie Jarvis told the ABC’s National Wrap program that in many instances, the plight of animals was put before the welfare of female employees.

“These corporations, who are really concerned about animal welfare breaches or WorkSafe breaches — are really onto OHS — just seem to have completely ignored the area of sexual harassment and bullying,” she said.

Ms Jarvis said she constantly heard alarming stories, and reflected on one incident involving an 18-year-old woman who spent her gap year on a cattle farm in the northern pastoral sector.

“Within a few days of her getting there, her middle-aged boss told all the young men on the station that the first person to sleep with her would get a $1,000 bonus,” Ms Jarvis said.

“This was supposedly said as a joke, but you’ve got to remember this was an 18-year-old girl, thousands of kilometres away from her parents, who is not only working on that station but living there, socialising there.”

Such remarks created discomfort among many of the male workers, who felt conflicted between conforming to a “stereotype” and speaking out.

“These young men, who were also 18, 19 years old, were coming up to her afterwards and saying they were deeply embarrassed by this, that they weren’t raised this way, but that they also feel powerless,” Ms Jarvis said.

“If you’ve got a middle-aged man who is your boss making these comments, they felt that they had to laugh along.

“It’s almost as if these sorts of insidious, insulting comments are almost like a test: this is what you have to do to live and work out here, and you just need to toughen up, and let’s just see if you can hack it.”

There is a limited amount of data available on the extent of sexual harassment in regional and rural workplaces, but one 2015 study found more than 70 per cent of women out of a sample size of 107 had experienced harassment.

Agriculture was the most problematic industry — 93 per cent of surveyed women working in that area reported enduring sexual harassment.

Rural women say #UsToo — but with trepidation

A year on from the emergence of the global #MeToo movement, the extent of sexual harassment in the Australian Parliament and corporate sector has been exposed.

But Ms Jarvis said many of the young women working in remote communities felt the movement did not apply to them.

The RRR Network launched an event named #UsToo to raise awareness about sexual harassment and bullying in rural workplaces — but while the Perth luncheon was a success, Ms Jarvis said there was still some trepidation.

“We had women from the corporate sector saying that they would come but they would be buying the tickets in their own name. We had women from corporations saying that they didn’t want their photograph taken at the event,” she said.

“I’m just gobsmacked that something that has been illegal since 1984 still generates this kind of concern amongst large corporations.”

Former WA Rural Woman of the Year and RRR Network member, Catherine Marriott, made a confidential complaint to the National Party in February alleging she had been sexually harassed by then-agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce.

After an eight-month investigation, the NSW Branch said it had been unable to make a determination about her complaint. Mr Joyce has categorically denied the claim, which he said was “defamatory”.

Ms Jarvis said she was appalled by the weaponisation of Ms Marriott’s name, adding many regional women were hesitant to speak out, fearing they would lose their career.

“No one seems to be standing up and saying, ‘hang on a minute, no we don’t believe your career would be ruined’. It seems to just be a given that if you are linked to a sexual harassment case, it’s going to impact your future career,” she said.

Adopting a ‘restorative justice approach’

The RRR Network CEO is also worried about the cost facing rural businesses which fail to act, as many women permanently leave the sector due to inappropriate behaviour.

Ms Jarvis said she hoped the #UsToo movement could help women who were unsure about coming forward access independent mediation through a “restorative justice approach”.

“We’re talking about allowing a system to be put in place where complainants who are feeling a little bit isolated, and not necessarily getting the support they need in their rural or regional workplace, to be able to access someone to advocate for them and to put forward their case,” she said.

Watch Jackie Jarvis’ full interview with National Wrap on the ABC News Channel at 9:00pm AEDT tonight.

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