Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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What is sexual harassment? “Sexual harassment is a type of discrimination based on sex”.[1] Sexual harassment is never okay, yet when it happens in the workplace – a professional atmosphere – it can be especially hard to deal with.

Everyone hears stories about sexual assault and sexual violence, but why do we hear so few stories about sexual harassment? There are many reasons, such as:

1) People do not know the policies.

2) People brush it off as “flirting”, “meaningless”, “joking”, or “just the way it is”. They don’t realize that it is in fact sexual harassment.

3) The complaints are not dealt with.[2]

4) Peers underplay the issue.[3]

5) Why don’t people speak up? Fight, flight or freeze are common reactions to situations,[4] yet people being harassed shouldn’t have to say or do anything. The responsibility is on the perpetrator to stop.

Let’s clear the air. Even though we may not hear a lot about workplace sexual harassment, it is happening. About a quarter of Canadians report having been sexually harassed, according to a survey conducted nationally online in 2014 by Angus Reid Institute.[5] Although a woman is three times more likely to face sexual harassment at work, men do face sexual harassment.[6] This is everyone’s problem because it affects everyone. Whether you are unfortunate enough to endure this harassment yourself, or are a bystander to the act, or you have a friend/family member that has experienced it, on some level you are affected.

1. To start your understanding of what constitutes as sexual harassment in the workplace or to refresh your memory, perhaps visit http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/sexual-harassment-employment-fact-sheet. The first fact to keep in mind is that activities qualifying as sexual harassment “in employment” apply as soon as a job application occurs.[7] The second important reminder if sexual harassment connects to your job, workplace sexual harassment can occur outside of the typical work situation and hours. [8]

2. For those who mistake sexual harassment as is “meaningless” or “just the good-ole workplace banter”, banter is not one-sided, meaningless does not mean the subject is uncomfortable. Whether it is considered sexual harassment or not, if it makes you uncomfortable, it is okay to speak up! If you do not feel comfortable, ask a colleague to speak up on your behalf. Taken straight from the Ontario Human Rights Commission website, here are some examples of sexual harassment[9]:

  • trading something for sex
  • repeatedly asking for dates, and not taking “no” for an answer
  • demanding hugs
  • unwanted touching
  • using inappropriate language or making comments at people
  • calling people sex-specific derogatory names
  • making sex-related comments about a person
  • saying or doing something because you think a person does not conform to sex-role stereotypes
  • posting or sharing pornography, sexual pictures or cartoons, sexually explicit graffiti, or other sexual photos (including online)
  • making sexual jokes
  • bragging about sexual encounters.

3. Why do some people not have their voices heard? Band together with your colleagues for support and if you see something that is not right, stand up for what you know is right. A workplace culture that supports a person experiencing sexual harassment can sometimes be as effective as a formal written reported complaint. There is good news though, as of 2016 it was announced that employers have increased responsibility and are obligated to explore all sexual harassment claims, thanks to Bill 132.[10]

4. Personally, I don’t think sexual harassment has the right to be skipped over as “not that big of a deal,” especially if you have not experienced it first-hand. “You’re being sensitive” or “That doesn’t sound that bad” is not an okay response to sexual harassment. It is up to each individual person to decide how an experience made them feel. Interestingly, although women are more likely to be sexually harassed, men are twice as likely than women to think “workplace sexual harassment is “overblown””.[11] However, there is good news – about 75% of Canadians think workplace sexual harassment is a problem![12]

5. There are two talked about reactions in stressful situations, fight or flight. The less talked about, third option is to freeze. What do you say when someone is making you uncomfortable? What do you say if you are in shock of what was said in your direction? Will this person act on their words? What just happened? I have to see this person every day, if I say something I will make my job awkward, right? These are all questions that can run through someone’s mind when they are sexually harassed. These are many reasons why someone might not be able to speak up for themselves and that is okay. The truth is, they shouldn’t have to speak up. Everyone has the right to not be sexually harassed. No one has the right to sexually harass.

At the end of the day, keep these thoughts in mind and pay attention to social cues. No one wants to be made uncomfortable and everyone wants to have fun at their job. Stand up for each other and educate one another. I suspect very few people intend to sexually harass others. Spreading awareness about what constitutes sexual harassment as well as the consequences of sexual harassment, will lead to a decrease in the sexual harassment cases we see. Less workplace sexual harassment means more people leaving work happy like this guy. Share this article and help make a difference!

Written by Rebecca Adkins