Sexual harrassment in the pastoral industry

Host: Yougawalla Pastoral Company

Written by Jane Sale – Manager, Yougawalla Pastoral Company

This blog is from a talk I did at The Kimberley and Pilbarra Cattlemen’s Association (KPCA) Ladies Lunch in Broome WA. I have tried to adapt it to the wider audience and mix gender. I hope it resonates with everyone.

Speaking at the KPCA Ladies Lunch, 2019.

The KPCA ladies lunch.

Over the last 13 years we have grown from a small family run development property and cattle operation at Yougawalla Station, to running a number of properties in the Kimberley region. Although we have sold our original company to new owners, we still see it as a family business and it is very much still our baby.

But, we are not on the ground seeing all our employees and the issues that arise daily. We are still involved and in the yards and mustering – but not all the time so we have had to delegate and set processes and procedures in place to support our management and staff and protect them. This is a hard thing to do and when you are expanding quickly. Issues arise that you are forced to manage on the back foot and be reactive. This can mean the issues become bigger.

We’ve had to adjust to not being on the ground every day.

If you are not there all the time and procedures are not clear, more often than not your staff for the season will create their own culture… which can work… but more likely can be disastrous for your business. Once a culture is set it is very hard to reverse or change it. When culture is not right it can be very upsetting on an everyday personal level but also dangerous for your business as you are spending your time dealing with fall out rather than controlling your business direction. We have had to learn to be proactive, which we are still learning and improving on all the time. The most prominent of these issues especially in recent years has been:

Sexual harassment.

I’m just going to pause there and ask you if you wouldn’t mind – to have a think about your reaction to those words.

Sexual harassment.

Are you thinking “Oh god here we go” or “Oooh great this should be interesting” ?

Is it positive, negative or maybe neutral?

What did you feel in your gut when you read those words?

Please bank that thought because I’ll come back to it.

I am wanting to encourage you here today to talk about this topic of which our industry locally has not picked up with the same momentum as other areas. This does not mean that on a business or personal level we are not thinking or talking about it – some companies have it totally in hand on all levels. Statistics suggest 39% of women have experienced sexual harassment over their working life and I am from the agriculture industry so that number is probably more like 67%.

Because our industry’s leadership historically has not been female, the culture is set to what men are comfortable with. This has changed enormously and very quickly. Up until 1994 women were not legally classified as farmers. Before this, and it was not so long ago, if a farmer was deceased then his widow was unable to get a bank loan or continue a mortgage on a property to keep her farm and work it. Changes have been significant here in the north of Australia in the 16 years since I have been here. A great example of this is our very own KPCA lead by Emma White and before her Catherine Marriott. We have strong female representation and a good balance right across the executive.

So, I don’t presume to know more about this topic than anyone else here, or be the pioneer of it. My qualifications go no further than my experience in handling situations and complaints in our business and being one of the statistics on more than one occasion inside and outside the industry.

I am not writing this for these reasons, I am writing this because I am willing to talk about it and encourage you to talk about it.

This attention to sexual harassment became very loud in a negative way 19 months ago when my honourable and courageous friend Catherine Marriott filed a confidential sexual harassment complaint with the National Party. That complaint was then leaked to the media and blew up to cause huge distress and a media and personal onslaught for Catherine. Catherine sent her complaint to try to address behaviour and instigate change for the younger people of our industry and beyond. She spoke up for those that did not have her courage to call this behaviour out. She was able to do this because she had emotional and professional integrity and grit as well as family, friends and professional support.

The female members of our industry through the Rural Reginal and Remote Women’s Network’s (RRR Network) voices were heard the loudest. I saw the outcome of this long harrowing ordeal culminating in the #UsToo lunch held on International Rural Women’s day in October 2018 held by the RRR Network with speakers Tracey Spicer, Skye Saunders and our Catherine. This event was overwhelmingly attended by people from many industries as well as ours and very well represented by our industry’s government leaders.

In Perth and surrounds it started a conversation. It resonated well with the Chair of the Pastoral Lands Board of WA (PLB), Tim Shackleton, who started our board meeting the next day by expressing his horror at our industry statistics and asked the question of us all, “What is our role here in this space?”.

We have since had sexual harassment on the agenda of every meeting – PLB have been in constant communication with the RRR Network who have taken the lead on this. I went along to their sexual harassment workshop “Champions for Change” along with members of the police force, DPIRD and RFDS in July 2019 as RRR Network continues to find the gaps in our industry and keep expanding on and continuing this conversation. This workshop was aimed at finding tools to assist with complaints, setting policy, and supporting both business and victims. So the bright side of this stressful and overwhelming experience, in true Marriott form, has been turned into a positive and the aim now is to make sexual harassment a normalised conversation.

Why do people and industry avoid these conversations?

I don’t know about you but I am tired of the finger pointing and anger campaigns that are being waged at the moment such as with climate change.

Not because I don’t believe. Let scientists and qualified people argue the facts and investigate strategy, while no matter what the science we should and can do whatever is in our powers on a personal level to improve what we are doing, this then keeps the issue in the forefront of our minds so that we are thinking of improvements in our workplace and it is also reflected in industry. This will lead us to do more and educate ourselves further to make a better environment.

I think the finger pointing and anger makes the accusers feel self-righteous and the rest of us feel guilty which in turn causes a feeling of helplessness.

Let’s face it, we have all done the wrong thing at some stage. Put your pizza box or coffee cup into the recycling bin? Thrown a water bottle into a rubbish bin perhaps? This finger pointing does not put us in a productive, open minded space for change. You are left feeling overwhelmed and wondering what the hell was that all about?

So draw a line – where are we at now – no matter what got us to this point – the change starts now.

We don’t look back, we look forward.

Now let’s go back to sexual harrassment

Think back to how you felt when you first read the words and now imagine you are a member of the opposite sex. What emotions do you think they would have felt. Let us acknowledge how we feel – negative or positive and try to move forward with an open and inclusive outlook, so we can continue a productive conversation and find solutions. Solutions for us personally, solutions for our workplaces and in turn, solutions for our industry.

I might add here that in 2018 the figures for men being sexually harassed in the workplace across all sectors was 26% over the previous 5 years.

Why, according to RRR Network WA survey data, are sexual harassment cases so high in agriculture? And let’s not forget these are reasons not excuses because this behaviour can be a misconception and missunderstanding but it can also be flat out predatory behaviour.

  1. We all live and work together in an isolated environment.
    Its long hours, hot and hard work. On a personal level this can create intense working relationships. Often there is no getting away from each other. Relationships start and fail in amongst other work colleagues noses. Seeing this happen can be confusing for young men and women as to what their place is in amongst the other relationships and comments being made. They are all living and working together day in and day out. Stuff happens that just wouldn’t happen in any other workplace – I have many stories about this. A fight erupting over cordial. A nudist coming to work with a contractor building water tanks that thought it was totally acceptable to work with no clothes on. The list goes on.
  2. Businesses in agriculture are traditionally family run which do not necessarily have policies and procedures in place and many stations traditionally have had women there but not in recognised leadership roles so the men have been setting the culture.
  3. Our Industry has a strong cultural heritage – survival of the toughest and grittiest. A man’s world that has been isolated and therefore has not in the past had to answer to legislation – in essence historically has been untouchable in its isolation.

Why is this an issue in our industry?

So, how do we improve?

  1. By having meaningful and engaging conversations with work mates and/or employees. Since our first complaint we have been looking into this rather intensely our business will be changing with a strong policy and discussion on the topic at induction. We will be welcoming all conversations and comments in this environment. We will separate our staff into gender groups for discussions about taking responsibility for behaviour and calling out someone who might be behaving in a way that makes someone else feel uncomfortable. It’s so important to check in on that person and tell the person doing it that it’s not ok or that their behaviour appears to be causing discomfort. Have these conversations and have them often. As it becomes normalised there will be less to talk about it as the culture you’ve created reduces it.
  2. When someone speaks out for themselves or on someone else’s behalf, celebrate the whistle blower. If you are a fellow employee encourage them to speak to someone that can help. Don’t complain if they do. You may think you don’t need the interruption in your busy workload but the fact that they are speaking up means a trusted workplace and that you have an opportunity to fix a chink in the system and perhaps prevent the cost personally and economically for an employee.
  3. Remember to support both parties, if they are employed by you they are both your responsibility. In doing this you must also take the steps needed to make everyone feel safe. In some instances the situation may come about from confusion in relationships and one member may not be emotionally savvy enough to understand their relationship. A change to infrastructure – locks on accommodation as well as screened ablution blocks might sound obvious – but it is amazing how much we will just keep working with what we always had or did before there was a mixed gender crew. Try not to miss the obvious.
  4. Create a safe listening environment and try to make it confidential. This is hard in a station environment and where it is not possible you must manage gossip and hear-say. Perhaps, with the parties involved consent, give other employees an overview of the situation and this gives them the responsibility of the information and more likely to avoid gossip spreading.
  5. ASK for help. Help for you business if a situation arises that you do not have the policy or know how to deal with. Ask for help for a friend or for yourself. If you are unsure who to talk to, you can always start with RRR Network.
  6. Look after yourself. Give yourself time out and distance from the intensity of a stock camp, and encourage your work mates and staff to do the same as it breaks up the culture to a degree. Managing your own time when you do have some spare gives you the space to assess your surroundings from a community member, employer or employee’s perspective. Regular time alone is time to reflect on your behaviour and the behaviour of others. Determine R U OK?

There is a huge economic cost to not making this a priority to your business and gains to be made in striving for gender equality and diversifying the workforce. How do we make a difference if we are not present?

That’s as far as I am going to touch on that topic in this blog.

If we are not proactive on an industry level legislation or the media will make us reactive. The generation entering our workforce now are well versed and educated in gender equality. They expect a safe fair working environment. If we can’t strive to provide that on all levels – personal business and industry – we will be failing them, which means we fail ourselves.

Please follow. Thank you.

Have a look at this very quick youtube video hopefully it’s encouraging…

Change is coming.