In recent months, as allegations of workplace sexual harassment have continued to surface on a near-daily basis, I’ve heard many people ask: How did nobody know? Such questions not only illustrate a culture of silence around sexual harassment, particularly in professional settings, but also our naïveté. Often, there is no easy way to report bad behaviour, especially if the person harassing you is your boss. Other times, and in recent cases, the complainants did raise the alarm, reporting their experiences to their supervisors or HR departments. But there is no guarantee that those in power will act, nor that they will do so with transparency. In fact, they might try to keep everything hush-hush.
Even when women feel secure enough to come forward, it can be hard to overcome our culture. In one Ontario case, from about five years ago, a male employee was fired from his job as a mail clerk after an internal workplace investigation found that he tried to kiss the complainant, a cleaner, in the elevator, and that when she pushed him away, he grabbed her bum. At the time, the complainant said the man had been harassing her for more than five years. But when the union later filed a grievance, an arbitrator agreed the harassment had happened, but reinstated the male employee.
In explaining his decision, the arbitrator said the complainant was a strong woman who could stand up for herself; besides, he added, another woman had stopped the man’s harassment of her by threatening violence. Surely, the complainant could do the same. An Ontario court overturned the decisions in 2013. But these “just deal with it” attitudes persist today.
In 2017, two Woodstock women told the CBC that they quit their full-time jobs as servers at the local East Side Mario’s restaurant, believing their sexual harassment complaints had not been taken seriously. In a meeting with the restaurant’s general manager, the two women reported their male manager’s alleged behaviour — inappropriate touching and sexual comments made over a period of months — and provided written statements. Weeks later, they were told the franchise owner felt there wasn’t enough evidence to remove the manger from his job.
They quit shortly after, largely because, as one woman told the CBC, “I thought, ‘You don’t believe us?’ … I just felt betrayed.” The manager was later dismissed after the CBC contacted the restaurant’s parent company for comment. These women are not alone. Nearly 30 per cent of Canadians say they’ve experienced sexual harassment at work, and four out of five employees who say they’ve experienced such behaviour haven’t reported it to their employers.
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It’s worth mentioning that, in Ontario, the government has taken steps to curtail unfair treatment of sexual harassment claims. Passed in 2016, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act requires employers to establish a procedure to handle employee complaints. As part of that, employees must also be given the results of any investigation in writing (which the women who worked at East Side Mario’s were not). But legislation, while a step in the right direction, isn’t a panacea. Workplace culture has to catch up — and companies must lead.
These things will not happen quickly. In February 2017, for instance, a security company that provided services to Oshawa City Hall was fined $70,000 for failing to develop the newly required workplace violence and harassment prevention program — despite repeated warnings. And there has been a backlash against the #MeToo movement in recent weeks. After Patrick Brown resigned as leader of the Progressive Conservatives following allegations of sexual misconduct (allegations Brown has repeatedly denied), some publicly questioned whether the movement had gone too far. As Rosie DiManno put it in a Toronto Star column: “To be perfectly hard-boiled about this: where is the sexual misconduct, exactly?”
None of this is easy. If women don’t report, their complaints won’t be heard. If women do report, they may be silenced. We need to create a culture in which coming forward to speak about sexual harassment is not seen as breaking ranks in the company. We need to create a culture, really, in which women can go to work and not have to worry about such behaviour. If it feels like #MeToo allegations are flooding our newsfeeds and our lives, it’s because women finally feel that people are ready to listen. The question we should really be asking is, what can we do now?
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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