In a submission to a WA parliamentary inquiry last year, 33-year-old Astacia Stevens, described her experiences as a contract cleaner while she was working at a Rio Tinto mine site.

It is tough to read.

Referring to a manager at the time, Stevens, a married mother of two, wrote: “He would frequently grab my bum, putting his fat gut into the small of my back as if though he would try to ‘ride me’. He would laugh when he did it, and he did it often in front of others present. He would often grab my hips from behind and pretend to sexually penetrate.

“He would often request that I bend over a pick up things in front of him. He would deliberately drop, for example, my bin liners. I would need to pick them up, but would do so in a way that I would not bend over. Even so, he would make crude and sexual comments in front of other guys when I would need to pick something up off the floor.”

Stevens wanted to become a haul truck operator, employed directly by Rio, but it was in her manager’s power to recommend the switch in employment contract. The manager refused to sign her over to Rio unless she had sex with him.

“I refused to have sex with him, so I therefore continued to do the
same job as a contractor,” she wrote in the submission to the 2021 WA inquiry into sexual harassment against women in the fly in, fly out mining industry. That was by not the end of the sexual harassment, which was followed by bullying and intimidation.

Fast forward a few months and this week Rio published a bombshell report on the miner’s culture more broadly, which revealed systemic bullying and unacceptably high rates of sexual harassment and racism at the company.

Rio is a founding member of the Champions of Change Coalition, which advocates for “gender equality, advancing more and diverse women in leadership, and building respectful and inclusive workplaces”.

Despite this, more than 48 per cent of Rio employees participating in the review conducted by former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said they had encountered bullying.

About 28 per cent of female respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment and 21 respondents said they had been the victim of an attempted rape or sexual assault within the past five years. Almost 40 per cent of respondents who identified as Australian Aboriginal men had experienced racism within the past five years.

Ms Broderick noted that women working on remote sites suffered particularly high rates of sexual harassment, while incidents of bullying and sexual harassment were particularly prominent in the iron ore division – as well as in aluminium in the case of bullying, and in the copper business in the case of sexual harassment.

But the victims of bullying, racism and unwanted sexual behaviour were by no means limited to blue-collar roles.

Ms Broderick pointed to high levels of bullying in the commercial division and high levels of sexual harassment in the strategy, sustainability and development division.

I was informed about a meeting where only the men were invited, and all the women stayed in the office. — Rio employee

Office workers also suffered from everyday sexism.

“I was informed about a meeting where only the men were invited, and all the women stayed in the office. I felt discriminated against by the manager promoting this practice,” said one employee.

The highest rates of racism experienced by male employees were in legal and external affairs, iron ore and strategy, sustainability and development businesses.

Employees in strategy, sustainability and development, and in legal and external affairs, were among the most likely to express no confidence that Rio would make meaningful improvements in relation to bullying.

This week, energy behemoth Chevron said it was finalising a contract with an independent third party to conduct a review of its culture, a move it flagged last November.

Rhonda Brighton-Hall, founder and chief executive of HR consultancy mwah. and a former executive general manager of organisation development at Commonwealth Bank, argued that as a general rule, white-collar managers had more opportunities to behave poorly, say at social events, and were often in greater positions of power because they tended to be further up the hierarchy.

Rhonda Brighton-Hall, co-founder of technology and consultancy company, mwah., says her firm has embraced diversity from its inception. Photo: Janie Barrett

“I’ve seen as many cases [of bullying and sexual harassment] in white-collar jobs as blue-collar jobs. Indeed, I’ve probably seen more,” Ms Brighton-Hall said.

The HR specialist said she was not surprised by the report.

“These are social issues more broadly. If you are running a business that is not particularly diverse, you are more likely to have those social issues,” Ms Brighton-Hall said. The report noted that only 19 per cent of the total workforce was female, and 26 per cent of senior leaders.

Martin Parkinson, chancellor of Macquarie University, former secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and a strong advocate for gender equality, said the findings of the report were “disturbing” and called on other companies in the sector to look inside their own businesses.

“These are sector-wide issues. Hopefully others will treat the findings as an indicator of what might be happening inside their own organisation and go and have a look,” Mr Parkinson said.

Superannuation fund HESTA has said it would be asking management of other big mining companies whether they were also presiding over a culture of systemic bullying, racism and sexism.

Katie Spearritt, CEO of Diversity Partners, a consultancy, said the Rio report was likely to be a setback for the resource industry’s attempts to hire more women and people from minority groups.

“It makes it so hard to attract people from diverse backgrounds because they would see Rio as being not a safe place to work,” she said.

“I think this will have ramifications for the whole industry, which is disappointing because I know the energy and depth of commitment that many organisations are making [to improve diversity].”

Mr Parkinson, himself a member of the founding group of the Champions of Change Coalition, praised Rio for making the report public. Other experts have said the publication of such reports is rare.

“Publishing the report was gutsy,” Mr Parkinson said.

“They didn’t have to put it out there. They are showing exactly the sort of leadership that they require to change themselves.”

He added that the leadership of Rio could now be held to account.

“They’ve put their neck on the line. No one in management can hide,” he said.

By Sally Pattern

Feb 4 2022