When it comes to discussions about sexual harassment and the Me Too movement, much of the focus has been on cases of sexual violence.
But the harassment and discrimination women face in the workplace is often much more subtle.
“I developed a two-day workshop for a large corporation, and I could tell by the first coffee break that the CEO was not listening to me,” recalled Barbara Bowes, founder of the HR consulting group Legacy Bowes. “So my boss, he took over delivering my workshop. They thought he was wonderful. It’s very subtle, but it’s something that stuck with me for years.”
Nicole Chammartin is the Executive Director of Klinic Community Health and the Sexuality Education Resource Centre. She also remembered a time early in her career where she was asked to change her behaviour, even though she wasn’t in the wrong.
“The person orientating me to the job sat me down, and part of the advice she gave me was how to avoid certain men that were going to be in my work environment that she felt had a high likelihood of harassing me. Whose workplace should include safety planning around protecting yourself from your colleagues?” Chammartin said.
“Women have spent a lot of their lives changing their behaviours in ways that most men probably don’t even realize.”
When it comes to reporting cases of harassment, there are many avenues one can take, including the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, which has seen an uptick in the number of complaints received in recent years.
“The situations they’re describing are no different than they were five years or even twenty years ago in terms of the kinds of conduct that is happening in the workplace,” said Isha Khan, Executive Director of the Commission. “Anytime we talk about issues like this, it gives people more of a voice so they can feel comfortable, saying this is something real that is happening and something can be done about it.”
Khan recognized that there are still many reasons why people don’t file a report, whether it be through them, the police, or an HR department.
Chammartin agreed that because of how women have historically been treated after making complaints public, they often decide to stay quiet.
“The first defence is, ‘Oh, she’s lying. She’s not telling the truth.’ Research shows that less than two per cent of claims are found to be invalidated,” Chammartin said. “The vast majority of stories are true. A key piece to changing the power dynamic is ensuring that women feel like they will be believed.”
According to Stats Canada, the average woman working full-time in Canada makes 83 per cent of what a man does. That number is 80 per cent in Manitoba, and 77 per cent in Winnipeg.
Looking ahead to the future, Bowes is optimistic that the tide is turning.
“I can tell, even from the number of investigations that we’re doing now compared to a year ago, and the way that the mangers are treating the issue, they recognize it’s really serious,” Bowes said. “I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more changes, more equitable relationships in the workplace that I didn’t have when I first started my career.”
Chammartin is also hopeful, but believes it will take a while to change deeply entrenched societal behaviours.
“It’s the things that we don’t talk about that are often the most dangerous in a society. When there’s a public light on it, that really does start to change the conversation. But we have a long way to go,” Chammartin explained. “It’s up to every man, every woman to look inside and think about what they’re role is in this, personally. What can you do to improve this situation, to try and create equity, a world where both men and women can feel safe? Not just in the workplace, but everywhere.”