Workplace Sexual Harassment: The Canadian Context

Sanya Ramnauth

In the wake of a series of high-profile sexual misconduct allegations that have emerged across the United States, the issue of sexual harassment has been brought to the forefront of discussions about gender inequality. This issue is not isolated within the U.S.; it touches the daily experiences of women across the world, ranging from the phenomenon of “mansplaining” to sexual misconduct to. The  #MeToo movement and a recent Hollywood campaign against sexual assault have brought attention to sexual harassment as a persistent issue within the workplace. While there have been fewer high-profile sexual harassment allegations in Canada than in the U.S., it nonetheless remains a prevalent issue in Canada, highlighted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speech in Davos, Switzerland.

What Constitutes Sexual Assault and Harassment in Canada?

Sexual assault refers to unwanted sexual activity, including touching and attacks, while sexual harassment encompasses behaviour without necessitating actual contact. The Canada Labour Code defines sexual harassment as any instance where conduct, a comment, a gesture or contact of sexual nature is likely to cause offence or humiliation or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or any opportunity for training or promotion. The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s definition goes beyond this and extends sexual harassment to an individual being targeted because they do not adhere to gender-based norms of behaviour, attire or appearance.

The Current Landscape

According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, 43% of women have been sexually harassed in their place of work, discounting those who do not come forward with their claims. Up until recent years, the proper definition of workplace sexual harassment was ambiguous and often required a recurring pattern of behaviour or a series of incidents to be able to make a successful claim. Nowadays, however, the Canadian Human Rights Commission along with provincial and territorial human rights agencies have mandated that employers are required to make every reasonable effort to ensure that no employee is subjected to sexual harassment. In addition, procedures and mechanisms whereby victims can make formal complaints have been put in place. Harassment must be reported within 12 months of the act, and there is a possibility of filing a complaint for someone who wishes to remain anonymous. In addition, there are no costs associated with filing a complaint, and hiring legal counsel is not required.

The Policy Implications of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a significant influencer of today’s gender-pay gap. Canadian women currently earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men (which may vary depending on the sector or part-time vs. full-time work). While this may be an improvement from the previous generation, this figure has remained constant over the past two decades. Studies have shown that women who experienced workplace sexual harassment ended up leaving their place of employment within two years, usually for a lower-paying job. This effect creates a persistent negative economic impact on women, contributing to the perpetual gender inequality that many Canadian women face. In addition, sexual harassment is linked to increased mental health issues, which can adversely impact job productivity and performance. And when this occurs, opportunities for professional advancement also decline. Sexual harassment, and its impact on women, therefore create an economic impact whereby Canada’s labor force remains unequal and its full potential untapped.

Changing Legislation and Policy Solutions

2017 revealed the prevalence and persistence of sexual harassment that women face and the difficulty associated with coming forward. In light of this, the Canadian government has taken action to tackle workplace harassment by proposing a change to Canada’s Labour Code, Bill C-65, which will impose obligations on federally regulated employers (such as banks, airlines, transportation services and prisons) to investigate complaints of workplace sexual harassment. If passed, the new legislation would require a fine or a public statement against any employer who fails to comply with the new regulations. In addition, a dispute resolution procedure will be put in place, which will include bringing in an outside investigator to review allegations and enforce strict privacy rules to protect victims from further harassment and/or violence.

Earlier in 2017, Ontario similarly enacted changes to its Occupational Health and Safety Act with Bill 132, which expands employers’ duties to investigate and address incidents of workplace sexual harassment. Previously, sexual harassment was part of Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) but by placing under its own legislation highlights the importance of the issue as a top priority within Ontario. First, OHSA will bring new definitions of “workplace harassment” and “workplace sexual harassment” for increased clarity. Moreover, changes will be made to the procedures regarding complaints, such as requiring that both the employee who experienced the workplace harassment and the perpetrator both be given written notice of an investigation. This notice will also include any corrective action that the employers has chosen. This is a step towards greater transparency and accountability within complaint procedures, and a paper trail will ensure that complaints must be addressed. In addition, changes will require a penalty against employers who are unwilling or fail to conduct investigations if a complaint has been made.

The Road Ahead

Bill 132 may have been a step in the right direction, but the system relies heavily on proactive compliance and monitoring by employers. In addition, while the proposed Bill C-65 would force employers to take action on workplace harassment, it fails to specify mandated sanctions for perpetrators, and is applied only to federally regulated employers. What this all suggests is that ending harassment depends on changing the thinking surrounding the culture of sexual harassment and gender equality, which can be facilitated by policies that create an equitable distribution of power within the workplace. 2017 was the year that sexual harassment was brought to the forefront of the public agenda, resulting in a number of policy reorientations to redress these systemic issues. 2018 will (hopefully) be the year that additional measures are taken to ensure that each and every woman or girl in Canada can enter in employment without needing to verify the company’s policies on sexual harassment.

Sanya Ramnauth is a 2019 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and political science from McGill University. Her policy interests include foreign policy, international development, and gender issues within public policy.

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