Authors: Michelle Bird

When most people think about sexual harassment, they think about unwelcome sexual advances and requests/demands for sexual “favours”: The executive who puts his hand on his administrative assistant’s knee. The professor who tells a student she might get a better grade if she went for a drink with him after class. While these behaviours are most definitely sexual harassment, they do not encompass the full scope of behaviours included in this term.

A recent study looked at a specific kind of sexual harassment – gender harassment – in the field of science. For the purposes of the study, gender harassment included behaviours that demeaned and belittled female scientists, included sexist jokes and remarks, and insinuations that science is a man’s field. According to the study, 25% of female engineering students and 50% of female medical students experienced “sexist hostility,” meaning comments that women did not belong in their field, or were not smart enough to succeed in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Clearly gender harassment and sexist hostility is a problem, but it is still not sufficiently recognized in most workplaces. In Ontario, the bill 132 amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act brought in a new definition of sexual harassment, which includes both unwelcome sexual solicitation and advances, and unwelcome comments or conduct based on a person’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. All workplace harassment policies and programs in Ontario are required to be compliant with the Act, including its definition of sexual harassment. However, many employers in both their policies and training programs still place far more emphasis on the “sexual solicitation” part of the definition, and either downplay the rest, or forget about it entirely.

Why is it important to be aware of gender harassment, sexist hostility and gender discrimination in the workplace? There are a few reasons:

  • Gender harassment and discrimination can be more subtle and harder to investigate

While sexual solicitation, advances and/or unwanted touching often occur as a discrete incident, gender harassment and discrimination can include micro-aggressions that may not, on their face, appear offensive and damaging, unless a workplace investigator is willing to take a nuanced approach. For example, a group of men continuously meeting for lunch or drinks after work and failing to invite the only woman in a department may not immediately appear to be problematic behaviour; however, this behaviour can have consequences for a woman’s advancement within an organization. Similarly, referring to women using “terms of endearment” such as “sweetie” or “honey” is considered innocuous by some, but serves to undermine and infantilize women in the workplace.

  • Gender harassment may be more prevalent

We have to keep in mind that figuring out the exact numbers when it comes to harassment is difficult, due to underreporting. However, the study referenced above found that while up to 50% of female students experienced gender harassment, only 2-5% experienced unwanted sexual touching or advances. Gender harassment is occurring at an alarming rate in many educational institutions and workplaces.

  • Sexist behaviour is linked to unwanted sexual touching/sexual assault

While there are differences in how gender harassment/discrimination and unwanted sexual touching – up to and including sexual assault – manifest, they may be different sides of the same coin. Research shows that in climates sexist behaviours are prevalent and accepted, unwanted sexual touching is more likely to occur. At its core, all kinds of sexual harassment are about power – exerting power over the victim of the harassment, and ensuring the behaviour can continue by dehumanizing and devaluing the victim within the organization. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that victims are far less likely to report harassment in environments where sexism is seen as permissible. An employer cannot stamp out more severe kinds of sexual harassment without addressing all sexual harassment and discrimination.

  • Gender discrimination makes women sick

Women aren’t just sick of sexism; they are sick from sexism. A recent study showed that gender discrimination and harassment had a significant impact on women’s mental and physical health, and partly explains the fact that working women in general tend to have worse physical and mental health than working men. A workplace that fails to address gender harassment and discrimination will likely see an increase in absenteeism and higher turnover rates among its female staff.

Employers need to keep in mind that sexual harassment includes many behaviours beyond sexual solicitation and coercion. This should be explicitly included in all workplace harassment policies and training programs, so that employees clearly know that sexist comments, jokes and behaviour is not tolerated within the workplace.