Photo: Flickr/Becky_wetherington

So here were are, in the midst of a continuing national conversation about sexual harassment, domestic violence and consent.

Some of the most shocking revelations about the Ghomeshi case include the admission made by several CBC employees that the toxic work environment at Q made it possible for Ghomeshi to act with impunity. Some of Ghomeshi’s co-workers at Q have even claimed that they knew about what was happening but felt powerless to stop it.

As upsetting as these reports have been, aspects of this scenario are probably reminiscent of many people’s workplaces, where off-colour jokes and sexual innuendoes pass for casual water cooler fodder.

As the Ghomeshi case shows, there is a not so fine line between inappropriate workplace culture and what gets recognized socially and legally as sexual harassment.

Though the situation at the CBC gives us a stark example of this, there are plenty of women who can attest to the grey area that exists between what is “merely” inappropriate and what makes a workplace feel dangerous.

According to the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, 70 per cent of individuals suffering from domestic violence are victimized at work.

So what do we do?

Changing workplace values

Under the Canada Labour Code, every employee is entitled to employment free of sexual harassment. A 1985 amendment to Code further stipulates that every employer must issue a policy statement concerning sexual harassment.

What the Code does not address is how we deal with workplace cultures that precipitate sexual harassment and make it harder for victims to speak out or be taken seriously when they’ve experienced harassment.

As sexual harassment allegations against two liberal MPs were made public last week, it became painfully clear that the old-boy culture is still dangerously pervasive on the Hill. One MP even described the House as a “palace of testosterone.”

In reports from both the Ghomeshi case and Parliament Hill, there are some clear commonalities: The inappropriate behaviour of powerful men is swept under the table so as not to besmirch the venerable institutions they represent.

Clearly, the issue in these workplaces in not simply a lack of policy but an environment that enables the victimization of some workers.

“There’s no ‘one thing’ that you can do to ensure a harassment-free workplace,” said said Barbara MacQuarrie, Community Director at the Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children (CRVAWC). Rather, MacQuarrie advocates a holistic approach based around education, clear communication and a commitment to the ideals of cooperation and mutualism.

“It’s not effective to say ‘this is what harassment is and don’t do it’ we have to go beneath that and look at the roots of those behaviours,” said MacQuarrie

The hidden cost of competition

In addition to investigating how systemic inequalities such as race and ableism inform workplace dynamics, MacQuarrie believes that creating a culture of respect also requires us to questions the hidden assumptions that we work within.

“We operate traditionally thinking that certain kinds of behaviours are good and acceptable,” said MacQuarrie, “those are traditionally what you’d call masculine traits: competition, individualism, get ahead at any price. That behaviour’s been rewarded.”

As rabble’s own Meagan Perry points out, sexual harassment is not only painful for the victims, it works to sustain and bolster the glass ceiling by making women less likely to succeed.

This was true at the CBC and on Parliament Hill, which are both highly competitive environments. But it also applies in all workplaces, where increasing precarity creates conditions in which more people are competing for fewer jobs.

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), 31 per cent of women working in the public service have experienced sexual harassment. In light of these statistics, PSAC has urged the Treasury Board of Canada to adopt a number of recommendations, including an in-depth examination of the impact of job cuts on women’s vulnerability to sexual harassment.

PSAC also suggest that an increase in the number of women in leadership positions could help to transform workplace cultures for the better. MacQuarrie goes further, arguing that it is not just woman at the top but “traditionally female traits” such as mutual support and cooperation that need to be fostered in the workplace through performance reviews and hiring practices.

Unifor Women’s Department Director, Julie White, offers another possible solution for creating a more open and supportive workplace culture. Initiated in 1993, the Women’s Advocate Program helps women who are in crisis.

“We recognized that as a union we had the bargaining power to make some change,” said White, who piloted the initiative with the Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor). 

After undergoing 40 hours of training, the Woman’s Advocate is equipped to offer support and resources for women in need. She helps to ensure that complaints are heard and accommodations made so that women can feel safe at work and at home.

The program rests on the idea that a woman facing violence or abuse in their personal lives or within the workplace would be more willing to reach out to another woman for support, than a boss or male colleague.

“I know for a fact, and I can speak to this directly, The Women’s Advocate Program has saved the lives of women and children in our union,” said White.

Of course, these resources aren’t available to everyone. Health and safety risks are heightened wherever workers feel vulnerable, and this includes sexual harassment. That is why the conversations about rape culture being held across the country are so important. But we also need to keep having conversations about workers’ rights, precarity and jobs stability, in order to see where these ills intersect.

“It’s not a problem of a few bad individuals,” said MacQuarrie, “harassing behaviour happens in a context and it’s either supported by that context, condoned, or its not accepted and not tolerated.”

More resources:

The Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children (CRVAWC) offers trainings and resources for workplaces looking to develop stronger anti-harassment environments. Check out all the resources from their Make It Your Business Campaign, for more information.

The Canadian Red Cross also offers online tutorials and resources on building anti-harassment practices. Their Ten Steps online program helps organizations and communities assess their own risks for bullying, abuse, and other forms of violence and prevent them.

Ella Bedard is rabble’s labour intern. She has written about labour issues for and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. She now lives in Toronto where she enjoys chasing the labour beat, biking and birding.


Ella Bedard

Ella Bedard

Ella is a historian-come-journalist with fickle tastes and strong progressive principles. She has written about labour issues for and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the...