Turning the tide?

Recent awareness campaigns and empowered victims may finally be helping reduce sexual harassment in the workplace

Turning the tide?

By Jeffrey R. Smith

Sexual harassment, especially workplace sexual harassment, has been at the forefront of social awareness for the past year or two. For many, it’s been a long time coming, as sexual harassment has been a problem for as long as — well, some would argue, forever. But it’s just in the last little while that harassment victims are finally being recognized and the perpetrators are being outed and punished.

Some might say the Harvey Weinstein Hollywood scandal that spawned the #MeToo movement really brought sexual harassment into the spotlight and started the process on turning the tide against sexual harassment and its perpetrators. Others might point to the Bill Cosby scandal, which had been the subject of rumours for years and in recent times led to charges against the comedian and actor — and finally a conviction last week.

Here in Canada, some might point to the Jian Ghomeshi trial and acquittal that really changed the landscape on both workplace sexual harassment and violence against women. Perhaps it was all of these events that finally made both victims and society in general to say, “Enough is enough!”

Regardless of when the shift started, it’s led to more victims of sexual harassment coming forward and more perpetrators facing the consequences. As a result, employers are taking more measures to prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces, directly addressing it when it does happen, and providing more support to employees who are subjected to it. Courts are coming down hard on employers who let it happen, and employers can be publicly shamed for it.

We’re also seeing the effects in government circles. Federal MPs and provincial representatives have been called out for bad behaviour and faced consequences — the most recent being a Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister stepping down following allegations he harassed another cabinet member. In Ontario, provincial PC party leader Patrick Brown was famously pushed out when sexual harassment allegations involving him came to light, leading to the madcap party leadership race mere months before an election.

Many may be shocked at the amount of sexual harassment allegations that have come up during this societal shift, but harassment hasn’t really increased. It’s just being acknowledged in places where it wasn’t before. But maybe because of it, we’re seeing a shift — a turning of the tide when it comes to the acceptance of sexual assault as a part of workplaces and society.

Governments and employers are taking steps to fight sexual harassment. Protections are being put into occupational health and safety legislation. Employers are drafting stronger policies and enforcement measures into effect.

For example, federal heritage minister Melanie Joly just announced a requirement for arts and culture organizations to commit in writing to provide a workplace free of sexual harassment and misconduct — a response to reports of sexual harassment in that industry, such as the recent allegations against the founding artistic director of Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre. And where employers aren’t taking sufficient action, harassment victims are feeling empowered to force the issue, such as the case of NFL cheerleaders coming forward with examples of harassment and discrimination to push the football league and its member teams into action.

Sexual harassment has been a problem for employers for a long time — the number of court decisions and settlements going back years is a testament to that. While it is still all-too-common, the increase in the amount of harassment and victims coming forward, along with positive action being taking by governments and employers, may be a sign that the tide is finally turning. And with the increase of awareness, employers who don’t follow that tide may end up drowning.

Latest stories