Businesswoman on trainKathryn Borel’s recent statement about why she pressed charges against Jian Ghomeshi drew national attention to the issue of sexual harassment at work. But many cases will never be reported or make the headlines.

Disturbingly, workplace sexual harassment is fairly common in Canada, particularly for women. A 2014 Angus Reid poll indicated that 43% of women have received unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours or have been subjected to sexually-charged jokes while at work. Women are four times as likely as men to have experienced harassment. Twenty per cent say they’ve been sexually assaulted while on the clock.

Yet, the report also says that about 80% of Canadians choose to remain silent about the sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact they experience at work.

Why? One of the top reasons Canadians give for not bringing harassment to the attention of their employers was that they preferred to deal with the issue on their own.

When one’s livelihood and career goals are at stake, it’s understandable that people who experience sexual harassment don’t want to rock the boat. But various other factors also discourage people from reporting sexual harassment at work:

  • Fear of disbelief: In a 2014 study conducted by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, close to half (43%) of respondents believed the HR department at their place of employment might not believe them if they were to file a report of workplace abuse.
  • Victim blaming: Reports of sexual harassment and assault are often pivoted away from the accused to measure the character and credibility of the survivor. Demands are placed on women to play the “perfect victim,” and a fear of being publically shamed deter many from coming forward.
  • Fear of reprisal: A 2015 report on sexual misconduct and harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces said that “interviewees stated that fear of negative repercussions for career progression, including being removed from the unit, is one of the most important reasons why members do not report [sexual harassment or assault]. Victims expressed concerns about not being believed, being stigmatized as weak, labelled a trouble-maker, subjected to retaliation by peers and supervisors, or diagnosed as unfit for work.”
  • Trauma: Many forms of sexual harassment and assault are linked to PTSD symptoms and psychological impacts can cause a decrease in productivity, income and well-being. The process of reporting sexual harassment and abuse is often arduous and re-traumatizing for survivors.
  • Immigration status: Under some Canadian work programs, people who have migrated from other countries can receive citizenship by working particular jobs for uninterrupted periods of time (ex. two years for live-in caregivers) but could threaten their citizenship status if they report abuse and are subsequently laid-off. Additionally, undocumented migrant workers aren’t offered protection from the police when reporting harassment/assault and could face deportation.

In any instance of sexual harassment or assault, it takes courage to come forward. In her statement, Kathryn Borel credited the 20 other women who pressed charges against Jian Ghomeshi: “There is no way that I would have come forward if it wasn’t for their courage.”

But it’s not only up to survivors of sexual harassment and assault to address and correct the issue. It’s also up to employers to create anti-harassment policies and enforce them. 

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