Life: How to Deal With Sexual Harassment

by Gilda Spitz

Sexual harassment is a complex and upsetting topic. It has been estimated that 80 to 90 percent of Canadian women will experience sexual harassment at some point in their working lives.

What is sexual harassment?

It’s hard to pin down an exact definition.

  • According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment means that someone is bothering you by saying or doing unwanted or unwelcome things of a sexual or gender-related nature.
  • According to Workplace Harassment: An Action Guide for Women, sexual harassment is any unwanted attention of a sexual nature, like remarks about your looks or personal life. Sometimes these comments sound like compliments, but they make you feel uneasy.
  • The Toronto Harassment Support Group says that sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Although sexual harassment can also happen to men, or between members of the same sex, the term applies most often to actions of men against women.

Examples of harassment include:

  • touching you inappropriately;
  • making offensive jokes or remarks;
  • making sexual requests or suggestions;
  • making unwelcome comments about your body;
  • displaying sexually offensive pictures;
  • being verbally abusive to you because of your gender.

Although the words and actions may differ, there is usually a common theme. Afroze Edwards, Senior Communications Office at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, says, “Sexual harassment is usually based on dynamics of power and control.”

What is not sexual harassment?

Because there are many definitions for the term, the concept can be open to interpretation. It can be helpful to describe what it isn’t. Sexual harassment is NOT:

  • mutual flirtation, joking, or teasing;
  • physical affection between friends;
  • consensual sexual interaction.

How can you tell if it is sexual harassment?

It depends on the situation and how it makes you feel.

For example, if your friend says, “Your hair looks terrific,” you would probably accept this as a compliment. But if your boss leans over your desk and whispers the comment in your ear while you are working, it may feel different.
Laurie McRae, VP Human Resources at Camilion Solutions, a Markham software company, says, “Sexual harassment is in the eye and mind and heart of the receiver.” In other words, if the words or actions make you feel uncomfortable, that’s usually enough.

What can you do about it?

In two poster campaigns on buses and subways and other places across the province, the Ontario Human Rights Commission used the following slogan: “It’s never OK. It’s against the law. Know your rights.”

The Ontario Human Rights Code clearly states that teachers and principals are responsible for keeping a harassment-free environment and addressing such issues when they arise. The same goes for individuals who provide services or rental accommodation, and employers when harassment occurs in their workplace.

McRae provides several helpful tips for dealing with sexual harassment at work. Your fi rst step should be to speak directly to the person who is making you uncomfortable. “Tell the harasser their actions are unacceptable,” she says. Sometimes just this simple step is enough to stop the unwanted behaviour.

If that approach is not successful, the next step is to speak to your manager. However, if the person who is harassing you IS your manager or another person of authority, you may not feel comfortable. In that case, try talking to the Human Resources person at your workplace. “Employers are obligated by law to take every complaint seriously and to conduct an investigation,” says McRae.

However, if you are concerned about privacy, fairness, or revenge at your workplace, you can contact the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario and submit a formal complaint.

Many people are reluctant to make a formal complaint about sexual harassment. You may feel embarrassed, or you may think that nobody will believe you. In some cultures, women may fi nd it more difficult to complain about situations that they shouldn’t tolerate.

Language barriers can provide an additional problem.

However, remember that you have protection under the law. Edwards stresses that this is true even if you are not a Canadian citizen.

What sort of information should you provide in a complaint?

When you submit a complaint, organize your thoughts and information first. You will be more persuasive if you can provide specific details. If you are concerned that you can’t explain the situation properly in English, ask a friend or relative to help.

The Ontario Women’s Directorate suggests that you write a detailed description of each incident, including:

  • what happened;
  • where it happened;
  • when it happened (all dates and times);
  • who did the harassing;
  • witnesses, if any;
  • what you did in return;
  • how the harasser acted in response;
  • how you felt;
  • what effects it has had on your life.

Who can you contact for help?

Depending on your particular circumstances, you may find the following contact information helpful.

  • If you are experiencing harassment in your workplace, call the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario at 1-800-387-9080, or go to www.hrto.ca. You can also call the Workers’ Information Centre at (416) 535-9875.
  • If you’ve been forced to quit work due to harassment, call the Ministry of Labour at 1-800-991-7454 or (416) 314-5421 or go to www.labour.gov.on.ca.
  • If you provide in-home care, call the Canadian Coalition for In-Home Care at (905) 849-6520 or go to www.ccihc.ca.

What happens to the harasser?

You may wonder what happens to the person who was harassing you. According to Workplace
Harassment: An Action Guide for Women, the harasser may:

  • be disciplined;
  • have to apologize to you;
  • have to get counseling;
  • lose pay;
  • be demoted, transferred, or fired from his/her job.

For more information

You can find more information in the following places:

CNM