High-profile sexual harassment cases have spurred Canadian employers to do more to prevent abuse in workplaces, but there’s still a long way to go, experts say.
When dozens of women came forward starting in late 2017 to accuse former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, it gave rise to the #MeToo movement and prompted workplaces in and out of Hollywood to examine their record on the issue.
More than two years later, as Weinstein faces trial on five charges including rape and predatory sexual assault, #MeToo has both exposed “rampant” sexual harassment in the workplace and been the catalyst for change.
Tanya van Biesen, executive director for Canada at Catalyst, a global non-profit that aims to advance women in leadership roles, said #MeToo has created a heightened level of awareness and discourse around sexual harassment in Canadian workplaces. The movement has also given voice to many who previously didn’t have the opportunity to be heard, she said.
Consulting with workplaces on sexual harassment and assault is part of Catalyst’s work. “Our experience with many organizations is that they’ve taken [#MeToo] very seriously and they’ve done the right things around updating their policies and processes, and ensured that there is appropriate reporting, investigation and support mechanisms for their workers,” she said. “Senior management, boards are talking about it.”
But van Biesen said it’s not yet known if the recent attention to the subject has added up to better workplaces for women.
“We don’t have empirical evidence to say there has been substantial behavioural change,” she said.
“The #MeToo movement has certainly been a net positive, but the actual behavioural and cultural change remains to be seen. None of this stuff happens overnight, let’s be honest.”
A Statistics Canada report found that four per cent of women reported they’d experienced sexual harassment at work in the previous 12 months, according to data collected in 2016, the most recent year available.
Most of those cases won’t receive anywhere near the same attention as cases involving famous people, such as Weinstein, or headline-grabbing settlements, including the $100 million the RCMP agreed in 2019 to pay to women who worked for the force in non-policing roles in the previous 45 years.
Take Sarah, for example (CBC News is not using her real name). Formerly an IT systems analyst, Sarah is on long-term leave from her job after suffering depression and anxiety she says stems from sexual harassment experienced at her workplace.
She says one of her bosses got physical with her on multiple occasions. “He just grabbed me and put his arm on my shoulder … and his face was so close to me. And I got extremely uncomfortable so I pushed him away.”
Sarah says her complaints went unheard over a period of two years. “And that’s not the worst part,” she said. “They actually forced me back to work with him within two hours after I complained of sexual harassment.”
She says her union wouldn’t intervene on her behalf because the alleged perpetrator was also a union member.
In 2010 she wound up in Sunnybrook Hospital for emergency psychiatric treatment. “It was horrible. [I was] hospitalized for three weeks and almost killed myself because I just feel my chest cannot contain the emotion that was like anger, sadness and feel[ing] dirty and violated.”
‘It happens everywhere’
Employment lawyer Janice Rubin said sexual harassment at work is far too common.
“It is ubiquitous. It happens everywhere. And in the wake of #MeToo, there have been all sorts of surveys from every sort of workplace you can imagine, and it’s rampant.”
Rubin was hired by CBC News to investigate its handling of the behaviour of former host Jian Ghomeshi.
She said #MeToo has made it clear to employers and to the public that sexual harassment at work isn’t just happening in isolated incidents. And it’s no longer just human resource managers who are paying attention.
“The board-level people are rolling up their sleeves and saying, ‘Why is this going on in our workplace, and is there is something more interventionist that we need to do in terms of solving the problem?'”
The law is evolving, too, said Rubin, pointing to a piece of federal legislation expected to come into effect this year.
Bill C-65 spells out new responsibilities for all federal public service employers, as well as other federally regulated private industries — airlines, broadcasters and banks, for example — to prevent workplace violence and harassment.
The bill strengthens provisions in the Canadian Labour Code to encompass the full spectrum of violence and harassment in the workplace. It requires employers to do three main things: work to prevent incidents of harassment and violence; respond effectively to incidents when they do occur; and support affected employees.
“It is asking employers to be significantly more proactive in terms of workplace harassment and workplace violence,” said Rubin.
That means employers must put in place policies and training programs aimed at preventing harassment before it occurs, rather than simply reacting once it has.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), headquartered in Hamilton, Ont., is a government agency that’s helping employers do just that.
Sonya Tonkovich, an occupational health and safety specialist with CCOHS, advises employers who want to put those preventative measures in place and become compliant with Bill C-65.
She said workplaces should start by establishing and circulating a policy that highlights the values of the organization and clearly states what behaviour will not be tolerated.
While Tonkovich said violence and harassment is not a new issue, the #MeToo movement has put “new focus” on the issue of violence and harassment in the workplace.
“It’s been there for a long time; it’s just being discussed more so right now,” she said. “Really, like any other health and safety hazard, violence and harassment in the workplace is a hazard.… We have a duty as organizations, as employers, to protect workers from hazards.”