Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Should Not Be a Woman’s Responsibility

52% of Canadian women have been sexually harassed in the workplace, and 28% of Canadian women have been the subject of non-consensual sexual touching in the workplace. The era of #metoo is long overdue.

A 2018 survey from the Angus Reid Institute also points to an important point: views on workplace sexual harassment largely depend on age and gender. Older generations often have different views on the issue, and opinions tend to differ quite greatly between young men and young women.

Two male employees pointing at an uncomfortable female employee

When we see the astounding statistic that 89% (nine out of ten) of women have taken steps to avoid unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, the picture becomes much more clear. The way in which we view and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace must change. Another 36% of women also admit they have, at one time or another, felt the responsibility of protecting themselves from sexual harassment. This means that over a third of women have, at one point or another, been put in uncomfortable and unsafe scenarios where they did not have enough support or resources in order to feel safe and protected.

The Angus Reid Institute survey brings up a lot of interesting points that may surprise some. Controversial items and behaviours are not necessarily considered more acceptable by older men. In fact, when it comes to these items, young men are often twice as likely than the rest of the population to say that a certain behaviour is acceptable, while older men (those 55+) are the least likely to believe these things are okay. Some examples include looking at suggestive materials at work, making a comment about a colleague’s body, expressing sexual interest in a co-worker, and making gestures of a sexual nature. 20% of young men (18-34) surveyed believed it was acceptable to use sexualized language in a work conversation, compared to just 3% of men aged 55 and older. These statistics definitely challenge some of the conventional ideals out there, especially when we look at many of the high-profile cases of the #metoo movement.

Prevention is Crucial

We can likely all agree that no woman should have to deal with sexual harassment or violence in the workplace, yet prevention strategies for sexual harassment can be paramount to the workplace. Yet these need to begin with an organization, rather than seen as a women’s issue. The Angus Reid study demonstrated the need for change with the fact that many women feel that the responsibility for preventing harassment or sexual advances lies with themselves. This can be akin to the argument that women need to prevent these advances out in public by ensuring they are not wearing suggestive clothing. Both of these are unacceptable. The following stats, then, may come as no surprise. While over one-third (37%) of women would embrace prevention strategies in the workplace, over one quarter feel they resent using these strategies, as it should not be up to women to deter unwanted attention.

This leads into the mindset about “new” rules of conduct and the differing feelings both genders have about the recent changes that have come up in light of the #metoo movement. The same study shows that young men are much more likely to feel that it’s difficult to understand where the line is, compared to young women or older men. A combination of proper training and resources could help ensure everyone is being treated with respect and understands acceptable vs unacceptable behaviours.

What About Repercussions?

A majority of men ages 18-34 agree with the statement, “some people have definitely behaved like jerks, but they shouldn’t lose their jobs or reputations for it,” while almost two-thirds of women that age disagree. We’ve entered a new age, one where men are being held accountable for their actions and allegations of abuse and harassment. An age where more women feel they are able to come forward, and one where people are lobbying for better support and responses for women who do choose to come forward.

By saying “we will not accept this” we are showing true support for these women and ensuring no level of abuse is tolerated, in any form. Although the line at some times can be grey, it is imperative we take every allegation seriously and continue the support long after there has been a disclosure. This support can come in many forms and may include things like counselling and safety planning for women. It should also involve support for men who have committed the abuse. We cannot leave men out of the conversation of gender-based violence, and in fact, many will argue that the only way to break the cycle is to educate the abusers themselves and provide support so they can change.

While this study shows us some sobering facts about the number of women who have dealt with abuse or harassment in the workplace, it also demonstrates that views toward sexual abuse might look different than we expect. Through understanding the need for more clarification as well as the need for training and support, we can all do better to help prevent abuse in the workplace and ensure all women feel safe.