Corporate world not without its lamentable #MeToo moments

By now, most Canadians – and British Columbians – are familiar with the sudden downfall of Patrick Brown, the man touted as the “next premier of Ontario” whose political aspirations came to an end in the span of six hours following a CTV News report that outlined serious allegations of misconduct.

We can now add Brown’s name to a growing list of men in North America who have faced the consequences of the #MeToo movement. Most of them made a living in entertainment and politics. But is sexual harassment prevalent only in these two areas of professional life?

The answer is “No.” Research conducted last year found that more than half of working women in Canada have experienced “conduct, comments, gestures or contact of a sexual nature that caused them offence or humiliation,” and three in 10 endured “conduct, comments, gestures or contact of a sexual nature that they perceived as placing a condition of a sexual nature on their employment or on any opportunity they might have for training or promotion.”

This incidence is simply too large to be exclusively representative of show business and public service. A majority of working women in Canada say they have been sexually harassed, but many of them lacked any mechanism for a successful resolution. Fewer than three in 10 women who have experienced sexual harassment reported it to a human resources department or a superior.

When asked why they decided to keep quiet, the women we spoke to detailed how difficult it was, and still is, to deal with these regrettable incidents.

“It was a small company, where the offender was the superior in charge,” wrote a woman from British Columbia. “It was the superior doing it,”, explained another from Atlantic Canada. In both of these cases, reporting was regarded as futile.

What about human resources? It doesn’t always go as planned, as a woman from Alberta told us: “The offending comments were made in the presence of the HR representative.”

In other cases, the behaviour of employees was simply normalized by management.

“Everyone knew this individual was crude in speech,” revealed a woman from Ontario.

None of these women worked in entertainment or politics. While there have been some highly publicized instances of executives behaving badly – particularly after bounteous amounts of alcohol – we have not seen many women coming forward to out sexual harassers in the corporate world.

While most cases of sexual harassment involve co-workers, there is a lamentable proportion of instances where the boss, manager or superior behaved in an abominable fashion. Across Canada, 40% of the working women we spoke to say they have listened to unwanted jokes with sexual content from the person they were reporting to, while 23% listened to unwanted sexual comments, conversation or innuendo. One in five (21%) report unwanted physical touching, cornering or patting, and 18% have been subjected to catcalls, whistles or being referred to using derogatory or demeaning sexual terms. Lastly, 13% felt unwanted pressure for dates. From their boss.

We might be tempted to assume that if something is not happening to the majority of working women in the country, it can be dismissed. When it comes to sexual harassment – especially when it originates from a superior – one case is too many.

In its essence, sexual harassment is related to power. A female employee with what the “Old Boys club” could describe as “the right kind of attitude” might look forward to bigger paycheques and promotions. Speaking out against abuse, or refusing the sexual advances of superiors, can signify the end of the line at a company. The conversation about sexual harassment in Canada is starting. Our survey shows that many women lack confidence in their company’s current guidelines to deal with specific transgressions. They also need assurances that their careers will not be affected if they decide to come forward. Addressing both of these issues is fundamental to bringing an end to this practice.

So, no, it is not a tough time to be a politician, a film producer or a boss. It is a tough time to be someone who behaved, or behaves, in an unpalatable, abhorrent and abusive fashion. And, as the recent high-profile cases have indubitably proven, when it comes to sexual harassment, there is no statute of limitations.

Originally published in Business in Vancouver