*Written in collaboration with Maya Luks.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme, #EmbraceEquity, focuses on how everyone can play a part in pushing toward equity. More specifically in a call to workplaces, among the IWD’s missions is to forge inclusive work cultures where women’s careers thrive, and their achievements are celebrated.
In reflecting on what it means to create an equitable work environment, it is useful to look at the evolution of case law and legislation regarding workplace harassment to understand better what actions are needed to create a truly inclusive, harassment-free environment. Indeed, significant advancements have been made in the context of the MeToo movement, particularly with respect to the prevention and handling of sexual harassment complaints.
Pre-MeToo Era: Workplace Environments and the Need to Focus on Systemic Change
In an often-cited case rendered by the Human Rights Tribunal in 1998, judge Michèle River shares her sentiments on the need for systemic changes within workplaces (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse (Lippé) c. Québec (Procureur général), (T.D.P.Q., 1998-11-02)).
In this case, the employee’s work climate changed drastically following an anonymous complaint made by another woman against the Deputy director for sexual harassment. Although the Plaintiff had not filed the complaint against theDeputy director herself, she began being ostracized by her male colleagues because of the speculation surrounding the identity of the complainant. She described her work environment as hostile and testified to having experienced acts of reprisal on a daily basis. Among other incidents, male colleagues started commenting on her breasts and her general attractiveness, asking her to kiss them, and threatening to hurt her. As a result, the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse argued that the Plaintiff endured a workplace that interfered with her right to work in an environment free of discrimination and harassment based on sex.
The judge concluded that the harassing behaviour to which the Plaintiff had been submitted did violate her dignity, honour and reputation, as well as her right to equal treatment in the workplace. This case brought to light that sexual harassment in the workplace is not a matter of individual complaints against one “bad individual”. Rather, the judge argues that embedded in some workplace cultures is a dynamic that contributes to sexual harassment, such as environments that isolate women. The judge further points out that the type of sexual harassment experienced by the Plaintiff is “more subtle and more insidious” than sexual harassment with sexual connotations; it is a type of harassment that aims to “demonstrate that the person does not belong in the workplace which is generally predominantly but not exclusively occupied by males”.
In her analysis, the judge exposed another angle to the systemic nature of sexual harassment – she makes clear that sexual harassment can manifest itself in the form of upholding a male-dominated work environment where women’s presence is unwelcome. Specifically, the Plaintiff worked in a workplace that did not allow women into the field until the 1980s, and remained male-dominated into the 1990s. The judgement places importance on the history of integration of women into the field, in how it was an environment that was unwelcoming to women for the better part of its existence.
This analysis can be applied to workers from different groups. Organizations can thus consider the importance of building a workplace culture that does not create nor encourage the isolation of its minority group employees.
After 2017: Working on a Solution
On October 16, 2017, after a tweet by an American actress encouraging people to share their stories of sexual harassment went viral, the MeToo movement quickly became an international phenomenon. In 2018, Bill 176 was proposed as a result of the awareness brought by the MeToo movement, codifying solutions to the workplace environment problems raised in the 1990s (An Act to amend the Act respecting labour standards and other legislative provisions mainly to facilitate family-work balance, SQ 2018, c 21).
What ultimately became law has brought three significant changes, the first of which is including sexual harassment under the definition of workplace harassment under the Act respecting labour standards. Secondly, the law has increased the delay to file a complaint after the last incident of psychological harassment from 90 days to 2 years.
Lastly, the law requires employers to adopt a policy to prevent psychological harassment and to treat such complaints.The employer has an obligation to render the policy accessible to their employees and to include a section on behaviour that manifests itself in the form of verbal comments, actions or gestures of a sexual nature. This change echoes the concerns raised in the above-mentioned 1998 Human Rights Tribunal decision where the sexual harassment policy was largely unknown; the new law ensures that not only a policy is put into place, but it is also imperative to ensure its proper implementation and education on it.
As this month brings forward an opportunity to reflect on equitable work environments and the significance of the MeToo movement, a look back in history sheds light on the progress made so far and allows us to contemplate on what the next steps should be. Such momentum can also motivate and inspire organizations to become proactive in creating safe work environments.
Considerations for organizations
- How do you educate your employees about harassment prevention?
- If you work in a field where women are traditionally under-represented, have you taken steps to promote their inclusion?
- What are you doing to be proactive in creating a more equitable work environment?
This article is part of a “Forging Inclusive Work Cultures” series by Latitude Management for International Women’s Day. These articles address different ways in which employers can #EmbraceEquity in their workplaces.
Forging Inclusive Work Cultures is a mission identified for International Women’s Day, 2023. (https://www.internationalwomensday.com/)