Skye Saunders

Sex discrimination in the workplace | Interview with Dr Skye Saunders

Dr Skye Saunders is a new addition to the UNE community, having been appointed as an Associate Professor in the School of Law in 2019. And aren’t we lucky to have Skye!

Skye is a recognised expert in the area of sex discrimination law, after spending the last decade researching, presenting and consulting in the field. Skye’s 2015 book Whispers from the Bush – The Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women was the first Australian research on sexual harassment in rural and remote workplaces. It was so well regarded that the Victorian Women’s Trust produced a documentary based on this research in 2017, Grace Under Fire. Skye was even a delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62 and CSW63) in New York with the YWCA Australia.

Skye was generous enough to answer some of our questions about sex discrimination in the workplace.

You’ve recently been appointed Associate Professor in the UNE School of Law. Welcome! How have you been settling in? 

I am so happy to have recently commenced work at UNE Law. So much about the UNE values – for example, innovation, creativity and respect – aligns with my own values as a professional and for me, this gives rise to real joy in the context of my work. I am a bit of a ‘blue sky(e)’ dreamer and it’s exciting to work in a University that really encourages that type of energy.

What first drew you to sex discrimination as an area of research?

I love the Steve Jobs quote that ‘you cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back.’ When I look back, there were few formative moments which shaped this research interest.

First, it’s relevant to say that I grew up in Central Western NSW and as a young woman, experienced some perplexing moments which I now understand as having been sexual harassment. So I say this because I think these experiences gave me a lens through which I could understand the problem (particularly in the rural context) and the way that it can make a person feel.

After I studied law, I practised as an Employment/Discrimination solicitor and developed a particular interest in sex discrimination law.

One day I had a client- a nurse- who had travelled to Canberra from a rural community about 5 hours away. She was seeking legal advice about a workplace sexual harassment matter, but didn’t feel able to go to a more local law firm because she was afraid that word might get out that she was a ‘troublemaker’. This was a powerful insight for me in retrospect.

And so, when I was on maternity leave with my first child, Summer, I commenced my PhD. It was published as a book which draws these types of experiences together, Whispers from the Bush- The Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women. 

What was the most startling thing you uncovered in your research?

In that particular project, I travelled to all sorts of Australian rural and remote communities to interview 107 rural woman and rural employers to hear their perspectives on workplace sexual harassment.

Of the women with whom I spoke, 73% indicated that they had experienced sexual harassment in the course of their rural employment. On the other hand, 85% of the employers with whom I spoke indicated that sexual harassment is a relatively low priority issue and expressed a desire for people to simply ‘get on with things’.

What can sexual harassment in the workplace look like?

Sexual harassment can include a wide range of behaviours. At one end of the spectrum, there might be unwanted jokes of a sexual nature, unwelcome requests for sex, leering, etc. As the scale progresses, there might be unwanted, suggestive gestures, unwelcome physical touching and the displaying of pornographic imagery. At the most extreme end of the scale, sexual harassment can include sexual assault and rape.

What about sex discrimination?

Sex Discrimination is when a person is treated less favourably than a person of the opposite sex in the same (or equal) circumstances. For example, it is illegal to discriminate against a woman by paying her less salary as a man for performing the same role in the workplace. Another example would be choosing not to hire a male nurse by reason of the fact that he may not ‘fit into’ a traditionally female-dominated working environment.

What should someone do if they think this is happening to them in the workplace? What about if they see a co-worker experiencing sexual harassment or sex discrimination?

It’s important to remember that employers must take ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the workplace. This means that an employer should have a clear policy that prohibits sexual harassment and which provides an avenue for individuals to raise concerns confidentially and without fear of being victimised in any way.

In the event that it is not possible for a person to make a complaint to an employer or senior manager, they should keep a diary note of the exact nature of the behaviour that they have encountered (because this may be an important record). An individual can choose to lodge a complaint directly to the Australian Human Rights Commission by filling out an online form through the AHRC website, too. I would also recommend having a support person (a trusted friend or family member) to lean on during this process.

What are some of the factors that stop people taking those steps?

I am actually working a piece of research about this very issue. In a nutshell, there can be all sorts of fears and uncertainties associated with moving outside of one’s comfort zone to make a complaint about sexual harassment or sex discrimination. These can include fear of being disbelieved, fear of backlash in the workplace or broader community, fear of small town gossip, or fear of being labelled a ‘trouble maker’ or ‘over-dramatic’. Whilst it does not cost anything to make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission, there can be associated legal costs if the matter doesn’t settle at that point. There can be all sorts of tolls on a person’s professional confidence, too- particularly if they are still working in the workplace where the incident complained of arose.

So, there are many reasons why a person may choose to ‘grin and bear’ sexual harassment or discrimination. However, we know that these behaviours tend to incrementally worsen over time- so for the benefit of the culture (including future generations) it is important that the standard of behaviour that we accept is not, actually, ‘sub-standard’ behaviour.

How can we all work together to reduce sexual harassment and sex discrimination, in and out of the workplace?

In the workplace, employers must embrace their legal obligation by taking ‘all reasonable steps’ to actively prevent sexual harassment. This includes having clear policies, training, complaints mechanisms and actively setting a respectful tone on a daily basis.

There tends to be a bit of uncertainty about what sexual harassment is (and is not) amongst some men in the workplace- and this can even lead to ‘playing it safe’ by interacting far less with women than might be natural. So there is a need for clarity around definitions so that individuals can enjoy healthy working dynamics, without fear.

Of course, if men do witness other men engaging in behaviour of a sexual nature in the workplace that might be humiliating or offensive, they should take the opportunity to tap that person on the shoulder and ask that they apologise. This is in the same spirit of blokes holding onto another mate’s car keys if he has had a few too many to drink, really.

Finally, it’s important that all workplace stakeholders- men, women and employers- practice giving voice to professional values in the workplace. This requires developing the confidence to have traditionally ‘difficult’ or ‘awkward’ conversations in a clear and purposeful way. Ultimately, the workplace culture will be a much happier place as a result.

Big thanks to Dr Skye Saunders for her time and expertise!


Advocacy & Welfare answers: What about sexual harassment or discrimination experienced at UNE?

Sexual harassment and discrimination is something that can occur in many spheres of life, including your studies. If you have experienced sexual harassment or discrimination in your studies at UNE, you can make a complaint directly to the Student Grievance Unit. If you feel uncomfortable speaking with the Student Grievance Unit for any reason, you can speak with us here at Advocacy & Welfare.

We can also offer support to any UNE student experiencing difficult circumstances. This might include helping you draft an application for Special Consideration or a Special Extension of Time, so that you can still perform well in your studies, despite dealing with circumstances that made study difficult.

We understand that these experiences can be quite distressing. UNE students can also access free counselling with UNE Counselling and Psychological Services. They are fully qualified and registered psychologists, offering on-campus appointments and phone/video chat sessions for online students. The service is confidential and free for UNE students. You can contact them Monday- Friday, 9am-4 pm, on (02) 6773 2897.

For more urgent assistance, UNE offers After Hours Support on weekdays from 4.00pm to 9.00am AEST, weekends and public holidays. Phone 1300 661 927 or text 0488 884 169. Alternatively, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.