Time to Put the Office Old Boys' Club on Notice

Dispiriting stats suggest workplace harassment at Canadian businesses is hardly a thing of the past

Written by James Cowan

Last month, Canadian Business (of which PROFIT is a part), alongside our sibling publications and broadcasting outlets at Rogers Media, launched Project 97, a year-long discussion about sexual assault, abuse and harassment.

We were motivated by the high-profile assault cases in 2014, which include the allegations against former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi and comedian Bill Cosby. The initiative derives its name from the 97% of sexual assaults committed against women that are never recorded by police. It’s a percentage we’d like to do our part to help reduce.

MORE #PROJECT97: What’s Project 97? »

Beyond the Ghomeshi case, 2014 also saw claims of workplace harassment at American Apparel and Tinder, as well as Zillow, a $4.5-billion real estate listings company where an employee alleges she was regularly propositioned and received lewd photos from her supervisor. While reasonably sound statistics exist to reflect the problem of sexual violence as a whole, there are scant numbers when it comes to its prevalence in the office. Too often, we’ve been forced to rely on decades-old estimates when discussing a very current problem.

But a recent Angus Reid survey offers disconcerting insight into the modern office. With an online survey of 1,504 Canadian adults, the pollster found 28% of all workers—and 43% of all women—had been victims of workplace sexual harassment. Moreover, 20% of women had experienced unwanted contact in the office. Four out of five victims said they never reported the problem to their employers.

MORE STATS: The Shocking Truth About Workplace Harassment »

The poll also illuminates differing views on what constitutes harassment, with men having a far higher threshold than women. For instance, 34% of men thought it OK to refer to a co-worker’s clothing as “sexy,” compared to 21% of women. There were age variances too: 44% of men over the age of 55 said it was fine to give a co-worker a shoulder rub. Only 27% of women under the age of 35 shared that opinion.

It’s tempting to interpret these results as confirmation that some harassment is an act of misunderstanding. Men—particularly older ones—simply don’t know what makes their female colleagues uncomfortable. But that’s just an easy excuse. As Beth Quinn, a Montana State University professor, wrote, this harassment should be viewed as “acts of ignoring” rather than “states of ignorance.”

Quinn conducted a study of “girl watching” at the office, and found that men claimed that staring at their co-workers was harmless. Yet, when pressed, they conceded they would be unable to defend the practice if confronted and wouldn’t appreciate it if placed in the women’s position.

MORE MEASURES: 5 Mistakes to Avoid When Investigating Workplace Harassment »

“If men simply €˜don’t get it’…then they should not be able to see this harm when envisioning themselves as women,” Quinn notes. These guys often know exactly what they’re doing—but no one is calling them out on it. That’s a culture problem.

The dispiriting fact is that a single workplace seminar is unlikely to change attitudes (one researcher even found men ogling the female actors in an anti-harassment video). What does help is a multi-faceted anti-harassment policy. Companies need a suite of active measures, like educational programs, and passive ones, such as a clear and repeated articulation of corporate policies. Male leaders especially need to challenge their co-workers to change.

If 2015 is going to be better than 2014, the boys can’t be boys anymore. They need to be men.

James Cowan is the editor-in-chief of Canadian BusinessThis column is from the January 2015 issue. Subscribe now!


PROFITguide.com is proud to be part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com