Facing up to harassment in agriculture

Women shine a light on sexual harassment as they tell their stories of what they have faced while working at farm shows. | File photo

Women shine a light on sexual harassment as they tell their stories of what they have faced while working at farm shows

After four years of working in agribusiness, Kathryn Sarauer still feels uneasy sharing her experiences with harassment at agribusiness shows.

Before leaving her job as a sales representative for a farm implements dealer, Sarauer started wearing a wedding ring when going out to work her booth. She isn’t married, but Sarauer says she received less unwanted attention this way.

Going to farm shows both in Canada and the United States, Sarauer says the harassment ranged from sexist comments and incessant questions about her phone number or marital status to a more terrifying incident of being followed to her vehicle while she was packing up her booth to leave for the night.

This particular incident was especially frightening when she realized she had left the knife she uses for setups and takedowns in the cab of the truck while she was in the back of the trailer. She did not know how to bring up the incidents to her former bosses.

“I just thought it was part of the job, which is sad. I didn’t want to be fired. I didn’t want to be let go or accused of being a whiner or scared.”

Harassment was not a topic of discussion when she was being trained for going to agribusiness shows, says Sarauer, but her employers did recognize that her work could be unsafe at times. Most of the time, she was travelling around Canada and the United States alone and was advised on what to do in other potentially dangerous situations, such as leaving the trailer and getting to safety if she was ever to have trouble on the road.

She feels much safer at the desk job she has now, she says, especially since her current bosses don’t shy away from the topic of harassment.

And Sarauer is not alone.

According to the Canada Labour Code, sexual harassment is defined as “any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion.”

Research into harassment in the agriculture industry shows that half of the women surveyed experienced harassment in some form, and three-quarters of women and nearly half of men believe that gender inequality exists in the industry.

The agriculture industry is not the only culprit because studies into harassment in other workplaces show similar figures.

Not only is it rampant in industries across the board, but people also are fully aware that it happens. In a 2017 survey about workplace harassment, 56 percent of people surveyed responded “yes” when asked if harassment of women takes place in their workplace.

Of harassment that does take place, only half of the incidents are reported and only half of those reported see any kind of reprimand for offenders. Reasons for this range from the survivor’s fear of retaliation by the offender, not feeling their situations were serious enough, and embarrassment that the situation took place.

That’s not to say that people in the agriculture industry aren’t taking notice.

Having had her own experiences with harassment, Kim Keller did not take it lightly when it happened to her staff at her former ag-tech start-up, Farm At Hand. If customers did not like the stance they were taking, she was fine not having them as a customer, she says.

“There was no excuse for it, no wiggle room for it…. My employees are more important than that customer.”

Dorothee van Dijk saw it happening so often that she and her co-workers have debriefings after agribusiness shows and have discussions about incidences that have happened.

There is always at least one story about harassment following every event, says van Dijk, but having these conversation sessions has led to her team exchanging tips on how to handle harassment and everyone being made aware of repeat offenders for future shows.

Iris Meck has her own communications company based out of Calgary and after 40 years in the agriculture industry, she wanted to offer women in agriculture more networking opportunities and their own space within the industry through the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference. Women sharing knowledge and gaining that confidence can mean more skills for their toolboxes on how to deal with challenging situations, including harassment.

“The more information you can gather, the more you use your network as a support system, the more confidence you build yourself, and confidence conquers all. With a lot of good information behind you and people that will support you, your potential is very great in dealing with any issue that you might have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”

Sarauer is now at a place where people have been proactive about addressing existing harassment situations, she says, and one of the first conversations Sarauer had with her current boss was how young people and women can be mistreated in the industry. That shows Sarauer that management is trying to understand uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situations and how staff can be impacted by them.

This is where the discussion has to happen, says Sarauer — at the management level.

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