OPSEU Provincial Women's Committee

Creating a culture shift: Sexual Harassment Awareness Week

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During sexual harassment week, we recognize the unprecedented shift in social, cultural and power dynamics ushered in by the #MeToo movement. The first week in June has been set aside to recognize the prevalence of sexual violence in the lives of women. This week, we honour the activists, silence breakers, and workers who continue to speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment and violence and who have inspired widespread calls for social change and unparalleled levels of accountability.

In Canada, governments are proposing ambitious new laws, including debate in the House of Commons calling for stronger sexual harassment protection. Bill C-65, an Act to Amend the Canadian Labour Code proposes a specific duty on employers to investigate, to record and report all occurrences of harassment or violence, and to respond and support employees affected by harassment and violence.

In Ontario, proposed changes to the Ontario Health and Safety Act requires an employer to ensure an investigation is conducted into workplace harassment, whether a worker has formally or informally made a complaint or where the employer is otherwise aware of an incident.

The #MeToo movement has had a significant impact on changing attitudes on what constitutes sexual harassment and violence according to a recent poll.

Attitudes have shifted not only in terms of recognizing explicit forms of sexual harassment –overt sexual violence or making a sexual advance—but also other forms of harassment such as asking a woman repeatedly for a date, or making comments about a woman’s appearance. There’s also growing recognition that harassment need not involve sexually-based comments or conduct at all—gender-based harassment or policies, practices, and conduct that reinforce traditional gender norms are also prohibited behavior.

The wave of #MeToo allegations have uncovered not just individual instances of harassment, but systemic and ongoing patterns of abuse that in many cases have been perpetrated against multiple complainants over decades, often by a single prominent individual. A strong focus of the movement is to highlight not only the pervasiveness of harassment but the culture that permits it, and the legal and institutional failures to address it. In some cases, the failures stem from employment policies that are too narrow in scope, non-disclosure settlements that may prevent women from confronting repeat harassers. In other cases, the lack of concrete mechanisms—from ineffective reporting structures to the lack of workplace restoration—actually perpetuate workplace harassment.

We applaud innovative steps taken by governments and organizations to address harassment. They include legislative protections for incidents of harassment (no longer limited to formal complaints) or for those who are not the direct targets, but who may witness harassment or be subject to a poisoned environment. We are inspired by organizations who have assumed a greater proactive and fact-finding role through on-going small group discussions, employee surveys and increased investigations, as well as technological innovations like TEQuitable and Callisto–apps that connect workers with support and that can notify companies with anonymous alerts (For more information, see here).

The #MeToo movement is a watershed moment in all our lives. It has empowered thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of women, and has completely transformed social relations. This week, we honour the organizers, activists, and workers who have fought for better ways to address sexual harassment and have established grassroots infrastructure to support and sustain the movement.

The Provincial Women’s Committee calls on all OPSEU members to continue to build the conversation around sexual harassment, to encourage workers and employers to examine power and organizational dynamics, to create environments where people feel supported, and to ensure that every member takes responsibility for ensuring we no longer live or work in culture that condones harassment.