We Still Don't Understand Sexual Harassment in Toronto's Workplaces
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We Still Don’t Understand Sexual Harassment in Toronto’s Workplaces

The Ghomeshi trial is over and #Elbowgate has subsided. But women don't feel any safer.

Women in Toronto is a new column exploring the issues that women in the city face.

Emily was 18 years old when she worked her first night at a restaurant. Without warning, when it got unexpectedly busy, her short training session turned into a hectic 10-hour serving shift at the downtown pub. In the early hours of the morning, once the last drunkards were gone, she was one of the last workers in the restaurant with her new boss.

Emily was starving and exhausted. It had been a heavy first day. She asked to leave. But her boss, a man in his 40s, told her to stay. He apologized for the long first shift and offered her a free dinner. She hadn’t taken a break all night, and the kitchen was just closing—they could whip something up. He would keep her on the clock, he said. He asked her if she liked fish. A few minutes later, he brought her dinner upstairs, in a private room.

Emily’s boss brought her a beer, too, and he had one himself. Then he started to bring up shots of Jameson. Though at first she appreciated the free food and drink, she felt increasingly uncomfortable. She soon started to refuse the alcohol. She could think only of going home. Her boss, on the other hand, could think only of fish, and his remarks started to become more and more crude.

Previously, during Emily’s hiring interview, he had already made remarks about adding a pole in the restaurant for Emily to dance on. During her training shift, he had periodically come up to her and repeated the same off-colour jokes, as though it was casual banter. Other servers told Emily that it was normal for the boss to hit on “the girls.” You just had to tough it out, they said; he would eventually move on to someone else.

At the end of the night, after a reluctant drive and an aggressive, lingering hug, Emily got home safe, though in tears. She called the next day to quit her job, and it took her weeks to find the courage to pick up her paycheque at the restaurant.

Emily isn’t alone: every woman I know, without exception, has experienced some form of workplace harassment—whether it’s a boss on a power trip or a sexist joke shared in the board room.

Sabrina travelled with her employer for work, and he regularly asked her to share his hotel bed, announcing that she would do it to all who could hear. Allison’s boss told her to clean up, and to ask only certain colleagues for help, because that’s “a woman’s job.” Past bosses have told me that they only hired me because of my looks, and I’ve had to intercept more than one inappropriate physical advance.

And yet, I don’t know a single person who has reported such behaviour to the police. Until last week, when I asked Emily about her experience, I had never thought about law enforcement or the courts as an option. The answer was simple, like what Emily’s colleagues told her: if you’re harassed, you either quit or you tough it out.

It’s a common response to a distinctly gendered problem. Canadian women are more than three times as likely as men to experience harassment on the job. A lack of understanding of workplace sexual harassment, mixed with a public that often treats the problem too lightly, means that most women in Toronto don’t know their rights, or how to defend them.

Workplace sexual harassment caught the public eye two weeks ago, when the Crown dropped charges of sexual assault against former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. After signing a peace bond, Ghomeshi publicly apologized for his “sexually inappropriate behaviour” at CBC headquarters. This behaviour included walking up to a colleague at work and repeatedly miming sexual acts from behind her.

Kathryn Borel, the complainant, was among those women who have lost hope in the justice system’s ability to protect women. She said in a public statement that dropping the charges “seemed like the clearest path to the truth. A trial would have maintained…the lie that he was not guilty, and it would have further subjected me to the very same pattern of abuse that I am currently trying to stop.”

Last week’s response to the #Elbowgate scandal, which began when Trudeau accidentally elbowed a female colleague during a particularly heated House of Commons kerfuffle, only makes matters worse. Politicians and commentators spouted out the words “workplace sexual harassment,” in various iterations, without understanding. On Twitter, Trudeau was compared to Ghomeshi.

When the matter is taken so lightly as to make its way into petty political arguments, it’s hard to imagine many women confidently coming forward with accusations against their employers or colleagues. We lack the understanding and nuance needed to properly combat the issue. Just yesterday, a woman in Newmarket protested the fact that a colleague who, over a period of years, secretly and repeatedly ejaculated into her coffee cup and rubbed his penis over her phone was charged only with “mischief to property.” The act wasn’t considered sexual harassment because a woman cannot fear something she isn’t aware of—and “feeling fear” is a legal requirement for a victim of sexual harassment.

A 2014 national survey by Angus Reid Institute found that one-third of Canadian men thought the issue of workplace harassment was “overblown.” Less than half as many women agreed.

Admittedly, the Ontario government has been trying to create greater awareness about and rectify the issue. This March, the Lieutenant Governor signed into law a bill on sexual assault and violence—a bill designed as a response to the Ghomeshi accusations. A large part of the initiative addresses workplace sexual harassment. It offers a much more detailed definition of the crime, and it better establishes victim rights and employer responsibilities.

Months later, many have yet to hear of this initiative. Certainly, none of my girlfriends in Toronto have felt more safe at work because of it. This is a problem of communication, of awareness. Even now, there is a disconnect between what the government tries to do for women and what us female workers experience.

Few of us know the distinction between everyday sexism, which we’re used to brushing off, and actual workplace harassment. Perhaps that’s why experiences like Emily’s get reported so rarely. At the time, she didn’t regret not reporting the incident. “I would have felt silly,” she says. “He probably harassed all the girls.”

Emily survived because she had the option of quitting. She sacrificed the few weeks of pay it cost for her to find a new job. Not everyone has that privilege.

It’s easy to think of a different ending to the story, one that might not be so easy to read. Next time it happens, we can work toward a better ending—one that involves using every resource available to make sure it never happens again.