Them, Too: Why Talking About Sexual Harassment Isn't Going Away Quietly
Last month, News From The Break Room covered the #metoo social media campaign, where people from all walks were bravely coming forward with their histories of sexual harassment, frequently from within the workplace.
While other ‘social activism’ campaigns often fail to elicit a concrete societal shift, #metoo may have broken the mould.
The lid is off when it comes to coming forward about sexual harassment, and here’s why:
The public support for individuals coming forward with their stories has been, while perhaps not universal, at the very least widespread. This is in part due to an increased awareness of the reasons individuals may wait for months, years, or even decades before publicly sharing their stories.
While every story is different, as is every individual, shame is a frequently a motivating factor in repressing one’s own truth. The perpetrators are frequently in positions of power, especially within a workplace setting, and victims are intentionally made to feel powerless and small. Frequently this shame is accompanied by fear that the victim’s story will not be believed. The perpetrator is again usually a superior, and victims are often afraid they will be miscast as having ulterior motives, or simply untruthful. While incidents are difficult to corroborate, an overwhelming majority of complainants are truthful, and their stories must be treated with the most serious and thorough concern.
In the United States, as seen with the litany of Bill Cosby’s accusers in the last several years, a statute of limitations frequently prevents an accused from facing justice within the legal system. This is not the case within Ontario. Under the Limitations Act, 2002, there is no limitation period for “a proceeding based on a sexual assault.” This means that accusers need not worry that their abusers will be incapable of facing justice simply because of a legal technicality.
As victim awareness increases, so too does awareness among employers of the importance of taking incidents seriously. Most notably in recent incidents, when the accused is a prominent name, employers are taking extraordinary measures to distance themselves swiftly lest their reputation be equally tainted.
At the height of his career Kevin Spacey was a two-time Academy Award winner and respected actor, but now his career has nosedived in light of a recent wave of sexual assault allegations. Not only has Netflix terminated his role in House of Cards, but director Ridley Scott has worked hastily to edit out and replace Spacey from his latest film before its release. After his recent allegations (and subsequent admission of guilt), comedian Louis CK has been fired from numerous networks that produced and supported his comedy and his productions. While the employer’s moves may seem extreme, networks and producers are well aware of the criticism that would befall them if they appeared to offer Spacey or CK any financial support. The allegations around Spacey and other celebrities continue as of the time of publication.
While these are large-scale employers, and their actions may not be appropriate in most cases, the speed with which they respond to these incidents is particularly noteworthy. Save for these incidents, HBO and Netflix would readily boast about their involvement with CK and Spacey. Yet in a short turn they have become industry pariahs whose names will likely be forever tarnished.
However, while networks and producers may have moved quickly to prevent reputational damage, it may not have been quick enough. After Spacey’s dismissal from House of Cards, for example, a number of accusers came forward accusing him of misdeeds on that very set. London's famed Old Vic theatre has just been hit with numerous allegations of sexual assault against Spacey, it's former artistic director from 2004-2015. It is unclear whether Neflix or the Old Vic were aware of these allegations, yet if they had known anything prior to taking action, they would have been complicit in their failure to take the allegations seriously.
It’s Not Just Men
While the majority of perpetrators in these incidents are men in position of power, this is not always the case.
Take, for example, former Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal. Agrawal, whose former company makes a feminine hygiene underwear, had previously boasted about flaunting taboos and breaking boundaries in the workplace. While she may have flaunted her conduct with alacrity, a human rights complaint brought by Thinx’s former head of public relations earlier this year shows that Agrawal’s actions went far beyond the pale.
In short, Agrawal bragged openly and in vivid detail in the workplace about her sexual exploits, including FaceTime-ing into meetings in the nude, and openly expressing her sexual desire for her own employees. Furthermore, Agrawal was accused of groping female employees, and encouraging them to expose themselves in public. Other former Thinx employees alleged Agrawal’s misconduct went beyond the realm of sexual harassment into ageism, sexism, and other inappropriate workplace behaviours.
While the prime culprits may be male, they are not exclusively so, and even a purportedly female-centred workplace climate such as Thinx is not immune to such misconduct.
How To Protect Yourself (and Your Business)
For employees, the most important takeaway is that both the law and the public are on your side. Ontario’s 2016 legislation takes strict measures to make employers responsible for employees’ safety at work when it comes to sexual harassment. Earlier this month, the Federal government introduced similar legislation to amend the Canada Labour Code with protections against workplace harassment in federally-regulated workplaces. When passed, the law would implement protections in industries such as banking, telecommunications, transportation, and even parliament itself.
While these celebrity incidents seem noteworthy, sexual harassment is prevalent in so many workplaces that it can almost feel commonplace. It never should. The openness of the conversation lately has only started to remove the unfortunate shame and stigma that often haunts victims of workplace harassment. Employees need to know that they are protected, and that their employer is listening and taking the issues seriously.
For employers, responding to and preventing sexual harassment needs to become a top priority. The past weeks have proven that this issue will not go quietly, and will remain a priority for a long time to come. Whether they are aware of active harassment or not, the responsibility is on employers’ shoulders to prevent it.
Employers are not helpless. There are numerous steps that employers can take to protect their employees, and also their businesses moving forward. Maintaining up-to-date policies, along with thorough training and monitoring systems, are key to preventing future incidents. For employers to fully safeguard their business, employees need to know that they are also being kept safe in the workplace.
While sexual harassment sadly may not be going anywhere, neither is speaking up about it. Employers, employees, and everyone in between need to stay vigilant. The bottom line is that if you see something, say something - you're helping someone by doing so.