Melissa Keith

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In March 2018, the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association held its annual convention in New Orleans. A panel discussed how the Thoroughbred racing industry had taken measures to address sexual harassment at tracks, from race office to backstretch. Harness racing has its origins in providing what was viewed as a wholesome alternative to the runners, but it cannot avoid the self-examination that all professional sports organizations are undertaking today. What was once considered acceptable or simply ignored now generates confrontations in the courts, in the media, and on social media.

In May 2017, Barbara Scott was named as chief steward for Racing and Wagering, Western Australia (RWWA), becoming the first woman in the important regulatory position. Just over a decade previous to her appointment, she had faced sexual harassment from a male steward while at work for the New South Wales Greyhound and Harness Racing Regulatory Authority (GHRRA). Scott reported unwanted advances, threats and physical contact, escalating to the point of being locked in a car with and by the man harassing her. The chief steward heard her complaint—and responded with open hostility,

Scott brought a wrongful dismissal claim against the New South Wales Greyhound and Harness Racing Regulatory Authority, disputing the notion that she had been “leading on” the steward in question. Scott’s former supervisor, who had blamed her for the harassment, was reprimanded by the Industrial Relations Commission for his “entirely inappropriate and very telling” reaction to her complaint: When she reported the harassment, Australia’s first-ever female harness racing steward ended up being demoted.

In 2018, RWWA chief executive Richard Burt praised Scott’s work and commitment.

RWWA, which regulates racing in Western Australia, has a zero tolerance policy toward sexual harassment. Anything contributing to “a sexually hostile working environment” is banned under its rules. Sexual harassment isn’t limited to obvious criminal code violations such as sexual assault, stalking, and indecent exposure: RWWA also stipulates that “obscene language or crude gestures”, “persistent questions or insinuations about a person's private life”, “nude/pornographic pictures (including screensavers)”, and “sexual comments, advances or propositions” are all part of the problem.

Dr. Kendra Coulter is an assistant professor of Labor Studies and Chancellor's Chair for Research Excellence at Ontario’s Brock University. She is internationally recognized for her research about the equestrian workforce. Coulter says that there is no reliable North American data about whether women experience harassment more or less often in harness racing, compared to other equine disciplines, such as Thoroughbred racing, rodeo, or show jumping.

What is known is that jobs involving horses are attractive to young women, who may not know their rights or feel empowered to speak out when they encounter problematic behaviour. Coulter notes that caretakers and others sometimes endure “compromising situations” at tracks, training centres or farms because of their dedication to the animals: “Some feel that if they complain and get fired, or choose to leave for their own well-being or protection, the horses might not get the care they deserve.” The very enthusiasm that makes them good employees “can definitely affect what they are willing to tolerate.”

Women in more powerful positions within racing can still experience unwanted overtures, as Barbara Scott’s situation illustrated. Coulter says harassment does not respect boundaries and can happen to anyone. “It’s challenging enough for powerful and well-resourced women to confront harassment. For those with less power, the volatility of their employment and daily work creates further barriers. Because of the legal classification of most stable staff as agricultural workers, this further constrains them, as does the fact many are increasingly being misclassified as ‘independent contractors’, who have even fewer protections.”

Provinces and states already have laws against workplace harassment. The problem is that by reporting inappropriate behavior, employees can find themselves subjected to unwanted publicity and even punished for going public, thus jeopardizing their employment prospects in the competitive field of racing. “The labour terrain in a lot of equine industries is a bit of wild west, and this is a sort of ongoing public secret,” states Coulter. “Workers at the bottom of the hierarchy are all disadvantaged, and those who face additional discrimination or harassment are harmed even more. That said, discrimination and harassment are never ethically appropriate, and are always prohibited by law.”

Lee Alphen served as racetrack chaplain at Rockingham Park and other New England tracks for over 30 years. She is now chaplain for the Christian Harness Horsemen’s Association, a position she has held since 2010. Alphen regularly corresponds with men and women from all areas of the harness racing industry, meeting them at racetracks, farms, training centers and sales, and also conversing by phone and e-mail.

Alphen says that she would definitely be willing to support anyone who turned to her for help dealing with sexual harassment. “Actually, if anyone came to me for help on any issue, it would be confidential,” she notes. The chaplain said while she doesn’t recall ever specifically being asked about sexual harassment, staff at racetracks and stables should never be afraid to bring it to light. “Sexual harassment is illegal. No one should put up with it,” she says. “Firing someone for denying sexual favors is also illegal. If someone contacted me who is being sexually harassed, I would discuss their options with them. If we are able to meet in person and it is possible, I would offer to meet with the woman and the person harassing her.”

She adds that there is less tolerance for any kind of workplace harassment today, in any setting, and perpetrators must be held accountable for their unwanted behavior.

Pastor Joe DiDonato says no one has ever asked him for counsel or intervention in this particular form of workplace harassment: “In 25 years as the chaplain here at The Meadows, I have never had a woman come to me for help due to sexual harassment. I have helped men and women in many different ways, but never for sexual harassment. And I thank The Lord for that!” He says that, if asked, he would treat a sexual harassment situation in the same way as any other form of harassment: “If it came about, I would handle it properly and privately. The proper steps would be taken to deal with the situation and confront those involved.”

DiDonato adds that he’s unaware of there ever being a case of sexual harassment at The Meadows, although there is no reason for anyone to suffer in silence if they are receiving non-consensual overtures or being abused. “If a woman needs to discuss anything privately, I am blessed to have two excellent women ministers who assist me, along with two excellent women counselors.”

Coulter says her studies have found that women employed in any racing industry position can feel pressure to simply put on a brave face if they are harassed. “There is the sense that workers in racing simply need to be tougher, to keep problems ‘inside,’ and that women need to adjust to the culture or seek work elsewhere. But this isn’t acceptable, legally or ethically. It also undermines the success of any business if turnover is high and workers are unhappy.”

The Labour Studies expert created a “Work in Ontario Horse Stables Survey” to examine the work lives of individuals employed in that province’s wide-ranging equestrian sector. She says she is unaware of any North American racetracks or racing jurisdictions with their own specific regulations against sexual harassment. “The best examples I can identify are in Sweden, which has a very different approach to working life overall. Everyone is entitled to paid sick days, a month of paid vacation, and other workplace rights, including those employed in horse stables.”

She notes that even with the generally higher standards and better protections afforded in Sweden, there are still “underground” transactions, in which caretakers and other workers may be paid in cash or room and board. This leaves them dependent on the good will of their employers, and vulnerable to exploitation.

Moira Fanning has risen from caretaker to Hambletonian Society COO over her distinguished career. She says she considers the topic of sexual harassment important enough to warrant its own discussion in a harness racing context. “This is tough one for me. I have obviously been afforded great opportunity in this industry [and] all of those opportunities were provided to me by men, and I never once experienced anything other than professional interaction with them.”

Fanning points out that grooms today face very different employment conditions than once existed. “As far as my caretaking days [in the late 70s to mid 80s], grooming horses only had one level—you were a caretaker or you weren’t. For good grooms, job opportunities were plentiful, racetracks still had a barn area and dorms, and you could leave a job and pick up another one without relocating. If you were made to feel uncomfortable or pressured sexually, you could easily leave your job for another one the next day.”

She adds that backstretch workers had a freedom to leave exploitative situations on the job then, while women employed in “front side” positions could lose promotions or geographically difficult-to-replace jobs. Fanning attributes the lack of women in leadership roles to women’s general preference for job security over high-risk, high-income positions: “In making the transition to the front side, top positions were overwhelmingly held by males, with clerical positions held by women, which I think was more relative to pay scale than anything else.”

Language and actions once tolerated in many workplaces now fall under the legal definition of harassment. This is not unique to harness racing culture. “Did I endure rude and ignorant behaviour, and crude and suggestive remarks? Of course I did, in a profession that was predominantly male,” notes Fanning, “But no more so than just in everyday life.”

There is inadequate data to ever know how prevalent sexual harassment has been in harness racing workplaces over the decades. Stigma against reporting unwanted advances and other abuses can convince workers to stay silent; researcher Coulter explains that sometimes harassment is called “consensual” by perpetrators looking to justify inappropriate behavior. “The industry itself, including the tracks, should issue clear statements about standards, and fund resources which are readily available to any woman working anywhere in the industry,” she says, adding that racing associations can collaborate with unions representing inside workers at racetracks to help access these tools.

It’s nothing to be taken lightly: The Racing and Wagering, Western Australia (RWWA) website makes it clear that employers are “vicariously liable” for sexual harassment and discrimination in the racing workplace, and must take action to prevent and/or end it.

Coulter says that workers at the lower end of the power and income scale should not have to compromise personal safety and peace of mind for the chance to work in racing. Racetracks and organizations serving industry participants can and should collaborate “to educate everyone about what is and isn’t acceptable, how they can intervene, and how they can change their own behaviour,” she adds. “Those with power, job security, and citizenship have particular responsibilities.”

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