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Sexual misconduct in the workplace: The narrative women are too familiar with

By Carolyn Bridgeman

(photo courtesy of Louis Hansel/Unsplash)

A job should be a place to gain experience, learn new skills and connect with co-workers.  For some women, regardless of their age or job title, their workplace can be a toxic breeding ground for inappropriate behaviour. This may include unwanted advances, inappropriate comments or unnecessary touching of any form. 

It’s reasonable to say that many women have stories of workplace misconduct from male superiors, whether it be a personal experience or being confided in. I’ve experienced unwanted comments myself from my boss. Approximately 19 per cent of women in Canada reported that they had experienced harassment in their workplace in 2018, according to Statistics Canada.

What is sexual harassment?

The Ontario Human Rights Code defines harassment as “engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome” Typically, for an event to be considered sexual harassment, the inappropriate behaviour must occur more than once. However, a single significant occurrence can be enough to be called sexual harassment.

In a workplace setting, inappropriate behaviour from male superiors can leave women feeling vulnerable, especially for survivors of sexual harassment. They may worry about their concerns being disregarded, alienation, mistreatment or even termination. It can be hard for them to address the behaviour in fear of making their work environment worse, and some women are forced to use other tactics.

Alicia Rasul, a 23-year-old student with experience in the retail industry, has previously dealt with sexual misconduct in the workplace from her own male employer. To avoid uncomfortable comments, Rasul felt obligated to adopt a more conservative attire.

“I started wearing turtle necks and long pants so that he couldn’t make comments about my appearance,” Rasul said.

Social media and workplace harassment

Harassment isn’t restricted to working hours only — social media provides a platform for inappropriate behaviour to continue outside of work. 

If an employer follows an employee’s social media account, the employee might feel obliged to accept the request. Instagram has become a very personal platform for many, and rejecting a follow or not following back can be seen as offensive to some. Accepting requests becomes a necessary measure for some employees to avoid awkwardness and remain on good terms.

In the past, I have accepted requests on Instagram from male superiors at my workplace. It can be a fun way to find out if we share common interests. But what I believe to be an innocent decision is taken by some men as an opportunity or invitation to carry out inappropriate conduct. In two different instances, I had male managers message me directly, sending me photos I had posted and making sexually-charged comments on my appearance. 

“So sexy,” they say. The messages aren’t just compliments about my physical appearance, but requests for drinks and dates. 

What leaves me even more uneasy is that these men are older than my father and have children around my age. As a 20-year-old woman trying to make money for school tuition, the persistent inappropriate behaviour from powerful, accomplished men in their 50s and 60s can be extremely frightening.

At one of my jobs, a certain man would compliment my figure, hold my hand and refuse to let go. He would look at me like a piece of meat, something to conquer and not an employee. When I went home, he repeatedly messaged me online. It got to the point where I would request other employees to carry out my duties at work to avoid interaction with him. 

(photo courtesy of Benjamin Child/Unsplash)

How can women gain work experience when they’re too uncomfortable to perform their job?

Identifying the problem

David Sherwyn, academic director of the Cornell Institute for Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations, said that we shouldn’t attempt to create boundaries for what can be defined as sexual harassment.

“Don't draw lines. Don't say, ‘I think that's bad but not that bad, so I don't think it crossed the line,’ because we really don't know where that line is,” Sherwyn said.

Sherwyn believes people must consider every complaint as a case-by-case scenario. What is acceptable behaviour to one may not be tolerable to another, so employees’ feelings should not be denied. He said employers should take every claim seriously and work with concerned employees to make the environment a comfortable space for everyone.

Consequences of sexual harassment 

Sexual harassment is a pressing issue for working women in all occupations, and it can be psychologically damaging. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine the true effects of sexual misconduct in the workplace because many incidents go unreported. 

Molly Houlton was an 18-year-old waitress when she first experienced sexual harassment. Working at a small bakery, Houlton had no knowledge of the resources available to her. With no one to turn to, Houlton could not effectively respond to the behaviour without the threat of losing her job.

“My boss had mentioned before that if any employee was uncomfortable with his behaviour, they could leave,” Houlton said. “Besides this, I really enjoyed the job and I didn’t want to lose my position, so it was either I take it or leave it.”

Reporting sexual harassment behaviour 

In an ideal work environment, the employer makes it clear that inappropriate conduct is not tolerated at the company and that there will be no reprisal for reporting so that employees feel comfortable doing so. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. 

For Selena Park, a former employee in the food and beverage industry, the management team at her workplace failed to thoroughly review the sexual misconduct policy during her hiring process. Park believes reviewing the policy would have benefited both the staff and management on appropriate behaviour.

“When they talked about sexual harassment my manager skimmed over the slide show and said ‘you should know this,’ and skipped to the rest of the training. Clearly, a lot of the managers really didn’t know,” said Park.

Sexual misconduct policies differ between organizations. Therefore, Sherwyn urges employees to look into their company’s liabilities to determine when the business is responsible for the behaviour of their employees and how they can report sexual misconduct in the workplace.

According to Dr. Russel Sabella, co-author of the book Confronting Sexual Harassment: Learning Activities for Teens, more should be done at the individual and department levels. 

“I think we can do a better job at getting people to role model for each other on how to refuse certain comments or situations,” said Sabella.

Solving sexual harassment

When you begin to feel uncomfortable in the workplace, it is important to speak up and reach out to a manager or colleague you trust. You never have to go through anything alone. Though this may be easier said than done, it is important to utilize resources found inside and outside of your workplace.

As a bystander, you can stop sexual harassment. If you recognize that someone is uncomfortable, step in, offer assistance and report the behaviour to a manager or the authorities. Never blame the victim. Show support by listening to them and encourage them to seek help. 

The greatest weapon against sexual misconduct is prevention. It is important that your employer establishes appropriate conduct beforehand and thoroughly educates the team on available support resources. 

At any job, all employees should have an active role in the prevention of sexual misconduct. If we work toward engaging greater discussion on sexual harassment, we can change the narrative for many women.


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