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Sexual harassment still an all-too-real problem in Canadian business

Women in the business world are seeking allies for their own #MeToo movement. (Getty Stock Photo)
Women in the business world are seeking allies for their own #MeToo movement. (Getty Stock Photo)

When Taylor* began her job at a major Canadian apparel manufacturer in 2011, she was thrilled to be working her dream job at a major corporation. She was in her early thirties, and saw potential for career growth in the corporate role.

But her time there was cut short following an unwanted encounter with the company’s owner.

Opening up about what happened for the first time since the incident, Taylor told Yahoo Finance Canada that it was a small office, and as a result she had had passing conversations with the CEO during her first weeks there. She mentioned one day that she was going out to a hotel bar that evening with a friend, and she says the CEO said he might see her there.

Taylor says what happened when she ran into him at the bar that evening shocked her.

“He said how great my breasts looked in my dress,” Taylor said, adding she thought the CEO was saying things and acting in a manner that suggested he sought a sexual encounter with her.

Taylor had been told by someone in the company “not to be alone with him [the boss]”, but had taken it in a joking manner based on how it was said, until that night.

“When I declined his advance I left the event immediately and texted someone senior in the company saying ‘I don’t know what to do here’,” Taylor said. The man she contacted was a director in the company, and remains at the company today.

“Should I do something or let it be?” she text the male colleague to which he advised her to “just let it go” and on Monday morning Taylor went into work as usual. However, within 30 minutes into the day she was called out of meeting and put into a room with HR. Taylor says she was fired that day.

“It went from me being praised for my work the week before to Monday morning being told I was let go,” Taylor said.

At a time when the #MeToo movement pervades the speeches at award shows and Twitter streams of Hollywood A-listers, stories like Taylor’s stand as reminders that women aren’t just suffering harassment on casting couches. There are women who work for Canadian companies, both large and small, who face unwanted attention and advances because of their gender.

“It’s just a matter of time until every sector in society has its own #MeToo movement,” says Julie Lalonde, who has been working in sexual assault education and prevention for 15 years.

Lalonde founded Draw the Line, a campaign that encourages Ontarians to participate in dialogue on sexual violence. She’s very vocal about the #MeToo movement and praises its growth from a hashtag showing solidarity into a grassroots movement. Lalonde educates in schools, workplaces and military colleges, and has trained over 8,000 people in 2017 alone.

“If your sector has not been touched, here’s your time to do the work,” says Lalonde. “When you do it from a damage control standpoint it’s not as effective, people are defensive, survivors have their guard up and you’re not going to get through to people.”

Camilla Sutton, CEO of Women in Capital Markets and a 25-year veteran of Bay Street companies such as Scotiabank and Omers, says it’s important for companies to look internally and take a critical eye to its policies, including gender diversity.

“In capital markets — where only 10 per cent of managing directors at the large brokerages are women — we have an environment, whether it is the promotions, the day-to-day terms or who gets assignments — some of these decisions aren’t made with enough structure,” Sutton says. “This brings in the opportunity for unconscious bias and a host of other things that come into play, which at times can disadvantage women. Some of these biases are obvious, but, I don’t think some of them are as obvious for people living through them.”

Policy-wise, many companies have taken steps to achieve success in gender diversity and legal protection.

Deborah Robinson, president and founder of Bay Street HR, says that codes of conduct are readily available within the finance world.

“Bay Street is pretty well covered with codes of conduct, I mean you have to realize that 70 per cent of Bay Street executives come from the big banks. They spend time at the big banks, then they may start their own independent firm,” she explains.

Having been the head of HR for CIBC Markets in the 1990s (a.k.a. “the cowboy days” as she refers to it), Robinson says she worked through times when integrity within the culture was seemingly better.

“In the mid 2000s there was somewhat zero tolerance in capital markets, well certainly at the banks, so anyone that came from the banks as well as baby boomers knew this,” says Robinson.

Robinson explains that there is a real problem on how to approach HR in workplace suits though.

“Look at other cases like Uber for example , where people were afraid or don’t how to go to HR,” she says. “Women need to have each other’s backs first of all. More senior women need to have the backs of junior women and more junior women need to feel comfortable to go to these senior level women.” For Robinson, it’s important to “transfer knowledge to the up-and-coming junior people.”

Seeking out allies

Actor Henry Cavill’s recent controversial statement about fears over being called a rapist for flirting as a public figure highlights the need for a broader understanding and the need for allies, both men and women, when someone finds themselves in an unwanted situation.

“We need men as allies or we’ll never have change,” says Sutton. “I think the #MeToo movement has been incredible in terms of raising the dialogue. The dialogue is now common place — you can have a discussion with your parents, with your friends, with your work colleagues.”

“Nobody gave women permission to have this conversation, they just did it,” says Lalonde. “And if you’re looking for an invitation, well that’s not how social justice movements work. The idea that talking about women’s experiences is automatically invalidating men’s experiences is something I hear quite often and to be honest it says more about the person posing the question than anything else.”

“Any time women’s voices get a little louder the assumption is that we are taking something away from men,” she says.

Lalonde points to men like Theo Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy, both men have come out about sexual assault in areas outside of finance.

“No one is saying #MeToo can’t include men, it’s like, well, what are you waiting for? By simply having the conversation you’re making it safer for everyone, and by preventing violence against women, we’re also preventing violence against boys,” adds Lalonde.

Changes in education, the workplace and policy

Lalonde says that education needs to be provided at a really young age, and the one thing she wants young girls to take away from such education is to “never prioritize being friendly over being safe.” Make waves, speak up, and stop changing your conduct to appease feelings. But, this is easier said then done. And the consequences of speaking up are still real, and worrying.

“This is policy based procedure, first of all, whether it’s recruiting or terms around promotions and pay, these things need to be structured around transparency and equality,” Sutton notes, who also says how this conversation needs to be on an everyday level, not just in capital markets.

“We recognize that over that last 20 years we haven’t seen as much change as we would like to see in the financial market in Canada, but I think recognizing why that is [i.e. lack of structure, gaps in pay, quality of promotions] and how some of the pieces to understanding that require recognizing the very barriers in place…this is something for everyone to take into account.”

Sutton recommends more focus on professional development (networking, info sessions, branding) and an overall “thoughtfulness” from corporations around all the above — an ongoing commitment to uphold. “Through media, through writing, research and more policy implementation we can move the dial in gender diversity,” Sutton says.

A new report from Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) found that of the 2,000 Canadians surveyed by Navigator in February (2018), over one third of female respondents said they had been sexually harassed at work. 12 per cent of men said they had been sexually harassed at work. Another report, this time conducted by the Gandolf Group, showed that 94 per cent of executives think sexual harassment is not a problem, and four in five Canadians said they had “unwanted experiences at work, and didn’t report it to their employers.”

“Recent revelations of harassment in the political, media, entertainment and business sectors has exposed the ‘dark reality’ that sexual harassment in the workplace is an ‘epidemic that has been allowed to persist,'” the Naivgator report mentioned. Recommendations for improvement were laid out and included enforcing a stand alone policy that addresses and handles sexual assault and harassment, which the report notes are “egregious forms of abuse which require specialized and highly sensitive handling.”

Other companies in finance have already made efforts to change their workplace. BMO announced that women represent 40 per cent of the company’s senior leaders across Canada and the United States, for example. Sutton also stresses the value of educating young women and supporting them as they choose their career path.

“It’s about building a pipeline and chatting to high school and university students, letting them know what’s critical in order to keep their options open,” Sutton says. “In high school letting them know to stay in STEM while speaking to university students more about career paths and what’s exciting, is important.

“It’s also about busting the myth that it’s all a boys’ club — this is critical for young female professionals wanting to come in the field. Working in capital markets or finance in Canada is exciting, it’s tremendously fast-paced, challenging, has financial rewards, there’s so much opportunity.”

Putting more money into funds for victims, providing legal services like what Toronto’s Barbara Schlifer Clinic does, demanding more advocacy within the financial sector through codes of conduct and fair opportunities, and creating procedural methods that are thoughtful and structured for everyone regardless of gender, all can help arm those inside the finance sector for a better outcome when it comes to handling and preventing misconduct.

While the support for the #MeToo movement has started an important dialogue, Lalonde stresses that ultimately, hashtags aren’t enough to resolve sensitive situations such as workplace harassment, assault and inequality both in Hollywood and in Canadian businesses.

“Raising awareness does not create social change,” says Lalonde.

As noted in the report via HRPA, the bottom line when it comes to changing the way sexual misconduct is reported and dealt with moving forward? Having zero tolerance towards sexual harassment plus regular, interactive and tailored training for employees, stand-alone policies and consistent accountability.

*Name changed at request of interview subject.

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