It started the day Wanda met her new boss.
After a successful interview, the man who would be overseeing her fundraising work walked her out down some stairs. As they made small talk, Wanda, whose last name we are withholding for privacy reasons, felt his hands press on her shoulders and squeeze them.
The way he touched her was odd, Wanda thought when she got home. But she was thrilled by the prospect of her new job, something that made it easier to dismiss the encounter.
A few days into her new role, it became clear this was part of a pattern of inappropriate behaviour.
Things escalated after Wanda caught her boss staring at her breasts repeatedly.
“He looked at my breasts, looked down at his genital area, looked back (at me), opened his palms and looked back down,” Wanda recently recalled.
“I’m in a state of shock that any man would do that and just keep going and pretend that nothing happened.”
In 1989, the École Polytechnique massacre propelled the issue of violence against women to the fore of the Canadian conscious, putting women’s rights and feminism under the microscope. Yet, 30 years later, to be a woman in Canada still means living with risk — to live knowing that, on average, a woman is killed every other day, that once a week a woman is murdered by her partner and that one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence over the course of their lives.
When it comes to workplace sexual harassment, the behaviour can be more subtle, making it harder to pinpoint and to report. Sexual harassment makes workplaces unsafe for women and affects productivity, and can have lasting professional and personal impacts. Unless a workplace has robust policies in place and a culture that doesn’t tolerate harassment, it can prevail.
WATCH: Nearly two in 10 women experience workplace harassment
Sexual harassment captures a wide range of unwanted behaviours, says Gillian Hnatiw, a Toronto-based litigator and chair of LEAF, a non-profit legal education and action organization for women.
Hnatiw, who specializes in sexual assault and harassment claims, says this includes breaching personal physical boundaries, inappropriate emails or texts, sharing sexual photos, inappropriate comments and inappropriate body language.
“The term harassment is sometimes also used to capture behaviour which the law technically recognizes as sexual assault, like groping in the workplace or any touching of a sexual nature without consent,” Hnatiw adds.
It’s also pretty common: Nearly two in 10 women say they’ve been harassed at work, a recent report by Statistics Canada found.
What’s more, the majority of Canadian women say they know another woman who has experienced sexual harassment, according to a Plan International Canada report.
The data, released in March, also found that only 20 per cent of women think “people in power” will take action if they witness and report sexual harassment.
While sexual harassment can be a one-off incident, it typically involves an ongoing pattern of behaviour that the perpetrators know — or should know — is unwanted, Hnatiw says.
Because sexual harassment can start off in seemingly innocuous ways, it can be hard to identify at first.
This was the case for 26-year-old Janet, who asked Global News to change her name as she still works in the same organization as her harasser.
Janet works in finance and began chatting with a colleague from another department at a work function in the summer of 2018. They bonded over their shared interests and similar senses of humour. Janet thought their banter was strictly platonic because he was married with kids.
He was also a manager.
But then the emails started. And the Instagram follow and subsequent likes. Then there were the late-night messages and photos. His communication became increasingly flirtatious and less work-related.
When he sent Janet a shirtless photo of himself, it became clear that he had crossed the line.
“It wasn’t friendly anymore and it wasn’t something that I wanted to participate in,” she says. “So I stopped responding.”
WATCH: How high are the rates of violence against women?
Still, he kept reaching out to her.
After speaking to family and friends, she decided to report the behaviour to her boss, who brought it to the attention of human resources.
HR scheduled a meeting with Janet and asked her to bring any evidence of his behaviour. She printed out all the Instagram messages she received and more than 70 emails that had nothing to do with work.
She wanted the harassment to stop and she also wanted a record of his behaviour on file should he bother other women in the future.
It can be hard for women to report sexual harassment in their workplace, especially if the perpetrator is in a position of power, says Hnatiw.
Not only do some women fear retaliation, there’s also the fear of not being believed or that they’re somehow responsible for the behaviour.
Busayo Faderin, an employment lawyer at Toronto’s Monkhouse Law, says women in precarious work situations are often more vulnerable, as are people who rely on low-paying jobs.
Certain work environments are ripe for harassment. Research shows that health-care workers experience higher rates of sexual harassment, as do those in the hospitality industry, including servers and hotel cleaners.
Women in workplaces where there are weak harassment policies or no HR department can also have a hard time accessing support, Faderin adds.
Harassment may be more common in male-dominated industries, like tech, where certain behaviours can become normalized and then insinuate themselves into the company’s culture, Hnatiw says.
This is apparent in the allegations made against WeWork, a co-working company.
In 2018, a former employee alleged she was sexually assaulted at company events and said WeWork’s culture allowed this behaviour to go unpunished. The company denied the allegations and described the case as meritless.
In October, former WeWork chief executive Adam Neumann was accused of pregnancy discrimination. In a statement to the New York Times, a WeWork spokeswoman said the company would “vigorously defend itself” against the allegations.
WATCH: A woman was killed every 60 hours in 2018
It’s also important to note that women with disabilities are three times as likely to be sexually assaulted, and Indigenous women are more likely to experience workplace harassment than non-Indigenous women.
Generally speaking, women of colour face more discrimination in the workplace, as do members of the LGBTQ2 community.
“You’re not just dealing with being a woman, but you’re also dealing with being a racialized woman and how that might impact perceptions of you and your ability to speak out,” Faderin says.
People who have been sexually harassed or abused in the past are more likely to experience the behaviour again.
Wanda believes this to be true in the case of her boss.
“He picked me and I now know that harassers pick,” Wanda says. “They don’t target every woman or man. They target those who are vulnerable and he saw that vulnerability.”
If a woman is being harassed at work, there are several things she can do.
All workers have a right to work in environments free of harassment and violence, Faderin says.
Provinces and territories have their own workplace acts, so it’s important that employees become familiar with their rights. In Ontario, the Occupational Health and Safety Act is intended to protect workers.
Faderin says it’s important for women to keep any evidence of the harassment and make detailed notes about what happened and when. Evidence can include emails, text messages, photos and any verbal or physical interactions.
Faderin suggests first notifying your workplace of the harassment. If possible, she suggests discussing the issues with a trustworthy superior. If there’s an HR department, schedule a meeting.
“That way, you give the organization an opportunity to address it because you might have an organization that does take the complaint seriously and deals with the matter in an effective way,” she says.
If the matter is not dealt with in a satisfactory way, speaking to an employment lawyer can help. Legal counsel can also help determine whether it’s necessary to get the police involved if the allegations are criminal in nature.
Faderin says options include launching a human rights tribunal complaint or civil lawsuit.
WATCH: What does violence against women mean?
Wanda says she confronted her boss about some of his behaviour, but he denied it and told her he didn’t know what she was talking about.
As someone who comes from an abusive background, Wanda says her experience was even more traumatizing — especially the gaslighting.
Wanda decided to report the harassment to her employer in the spring of 2018, three years after it began. She says it took time to start the reporting process because her boss wielded a lot of power and was well-liked.
Wanda detailed the harassment to the department at her workplace that handled such cases and they conducted an internal investigation.
“For me to go up against a powerful person among the powerful circle by any measure … was tough,” she says.
“(I felt) no one would believe me and everyone would blame me.”
After five months, the department determined her boss’s behaviour did not violate the workplace’s harassment code.
Further, the investigator said there was a lack of reliable evidence to support that the alleged conduct was sexual in nature.
Shortly after the department closed the investigation, Wanda went on sick leave. Less than two weeks later, she was terminated.
“I was devastated. I was emotionally crushed,” she says.
Janet’s complaint had a different outcome.
Her HR department concluded that the man harassing her had violated the company’s policies, and told her “disciplinary action” would be taken to ensure this behaviour did not happen again, and that he would undergo “additional training.”
WATCH: Is Canada doing enough to end violence against women?
Janet was given no further details, and the manager still works at her office. He also still oversees a team of employees that includes women.
Still, the fact that HR determined that his behaviour crossed the line made Janet feel validated.
“It was a release from the self-doubt.”
In her practice, Hnatiw sometimes sees outcomes like Janet’s where employees feel heard and feel generally satisfied with how their workplace handled their complaint. But in most cases, she says, the woman still ends up leaving her job.
“Women who are facing this conduct early in their careers really do face tough decisions,” she says.
“So often power is the mechanism through which people perpetrating this conduct keep the person experiencing it silent.”
To read the full Broken series, go here.
For a list of resources if you need help, go here.
Our reporting doesn’t end here. Do you have a story of violence against women, trans or non-binary persons — sexual harassment, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, or murder — that you want us to look at?
Email us: Laura.Hensley@globalnews.ca
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