Spinning wheels on the road to equality

Harassment cases show some workplaces still toxic for women

Spinning wheels on the road to equality

“The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.”

The literal translation of a well-worn saying means that while it may seem like things evolve, sometimes things don’t really change fundamentally. It’s a saying that many might say applies to gender relations in society and in the workplace. Great strides seem to have been made in reducing sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace – thanks in part to the #MeToo movement casting a spotlight on the problem – but, in reality, it can still be a problem in the workplace.

This problem can translate to a difference in how women and men experience the workplace. A recent study found that women are 41 per cent more likely to negatively mention toxic culture than men in reviews on Glassdoor, the website where current and former employees can anonymously review companies.

Things like disrespect, exclusion, and bullying can all contribute to a toxic workplace, and it seems that women are experiencing these more often. So maybe the strides we’ve made towards equality haven’t been as great as we may have thought.

Unfortunately, there are still many examples of women being subjected to poor treatment in the workplace simply because they’re women. And government workplaces aren’t immune, as a 2020 arbitration case demonstrated.

A female corrections officer at an Ontario women’s correctional institution filed a workplace discrimination and harassment complaint after a colleague brought an adult sex toy to work as a gag birthday present and showed it during a training session that she was leading. Once word of the complaint spread, friends of the accused filed numerous reports against her alleging inappropriate behaviour. An investigation concluded that the colleague engaged in sex discrimination, but the corrections officer had been complicit and suspended her.

 An arbitrator found that the employer failed to provide for the officer’s health and safety when she was assigned to work with the harasser again, creating a poisonous and intolerant workplace.

Single incident

Often sex discrimination in the workplace involves a pattern of conduct that is known or ought to be known as being unwelcome, and sometimes victims let it happen because they’re afraid of speaking up or they don’t know to whom they should speak.

Unfortunately, single incidents of sexual harassment seem to be less likely to constitute discrimination than others – at least according to some employment lawyers – perhaps partly because of an attitude that sexual harassment usually involves repeated behaviour and a single incident is more likely to be chalked up to be a misunderstanding.

Indeed, a few years ago the BC Human Rights Tribunal dismissed a university employee’s complaint of harassment against a professor based on the professor flirting with her at a dinner following a day of meetings and then telling her “I’m crazy about you.”

The worker said that she felt uncomfortable working with him after that, but the tribunal found that the professor crossed “boundaries of propriety” but it wasn’t harassment. The professor’s conduct wasn’t sufficiently of a sexual nature or have direct job consequences for the worker, said the tribunal.

Pattern of behaviour

However, when sexual harassment is bad, it can be really bad. Last year, a small business owner in Ontario was ordered to pay more than $56,000 to an employee for a campaign of sexual harassment that included yelling at her, calling her names, and making comments about her appearance and weight in front of customers and other employees. He also made sexual jokes to the worker and other employees, and the final straw came when he made inappropriate comments about the worker’s underage daughter when she visited the office, which upset both the worker and her daughter.

 The owner’s behaviour triggered anxiety and depression in the worker and forced her to quit, justifying $25,000 in damages for injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect plus a year of lost wages.

It's probably safe to say that, when it comes to gender and sex in the workplace, things have changed from the days of Mad Men-type office environments. But based on the workplace sexual harassment cases that are still coming up today, some things are still the same – and employers have to take the responsibility to keep changing.

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