Few would describe Sonia Furstenau as a victim.
From inspirational school teacher to community activist, to elected local government official to the first Green Party woman to ever be voted into the B.C. legislature, hers is a resume of public service and involvement that boldly states “leader.”
Yet there she was on Oct. 19, before the eyes of her peers and the eyes the province in B.C.’s highest house of government, saying “Me Too.”
Watching the Me Too movement — a hashtag that unites victims of sexual harassment and assault — unfold on social media, the Cowichan Valley MLA realized she wanted to bring attention to the issue in the legislature — a place where she was surprised to see a level of embedded sexism.
“I don’t think there’s a woman who can say that they can look back on their life and not see moments of sexual harassment and discrimination,” Furstenau said.
Me Too has done groundbreaking work in establishing just how prevalent such moments are, and how fed up women are with the situation.
But for many women to deem it a success, two things have to change: the workplace culture that allows such behaviour to fester, and the tools in place to help women find justice.
The criminal code of Canada describes sexual assault as when a person uses non-consensual force or threat “in circumstances of a sexual nature such that the sexual integrity of the victim is violated.”
Sexual harassment can be more subtle.
According to the BC Human Rights Clinic, sexual harassment in the workplace is defined as conduct of a sexual nature which is gender-based, unwelcome and detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse job-related consequences.
In practical terms it can be anything from demeaning gender-based jokes, comments and job assignments, to sexual advances.
Such things might seem obvious, but some workplaces are still emerging from an old-boy environment, where concern gets minimized with laughter or dismissed by fear.
Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein scandal has drawn particular attention to the issue of men misusing workplace power and influence for sexual purposes.
Furstenau’s own Me Too experience was an example of the latter. It occurred when she was a young woman working at a restaurant.
“The owner came in and walked up behind me and put his hands on my breasts,” she said.
Fortunately, she had the family support to be able to walk away.
“I was very fortunate that I had the choice to leave the job,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have that choice and that’s one problem that I think needs to be looked at.”
Most women who experience sexual harassment or assault in the workplace and choose to speak up consider three options — complain to your boss, complain to the police or call a lawyer. None of those paths are easy.
“There has typically been little to gain and much to lose from complaining about the conditions of one’s employment,” said Scott Anderson, associate professor of philosophy at UBC.
Anderson said people are often disadvantaged when coming forward, with relatively rare benefits, unless they happen to have significant evidence.
“In many cases, those who suffer it do not know of any others who can and will corroborate their stories, so it typically seems like a difficult case to argue, with two conflicting parties telling two very different accounts,” he said. “It’s only when several accusers know of each other and can offer each other supportive testimony that many accusers will expect to be taken seriously.”
|Scott Anderson, associate professor of philosophy at UBC, says the power in numbers is what causes people to take sexual assault allegations seriously.
Anderson said it can also be much more difficult to get people to take you seriously if you are marginalized by race, poverty, sexual orientation or are just one ordinary person complaining about someone higher up in an employment hierarchy.
“I think at present there is a bit more openness to consider complaints and take them seriously, but I’m not sure how far that extends or how long it will last,” he said.
By law, Canadian companies must have a sexual harassment policy in place. But just having one isn’t enough, not when staff doesn’t understand it, or feel empowered to use it.
Year-long consultation indicates need for action
In early November the Government of Canada released a report—Harassment and Sexual Violence: What We Heard—after a year of consultations with Canadians.
The results indicated a clear need for action. Canadians pointed out that incidents of harassment and sexual violence in the workplace are not only underreported, often due to fear of retaliation, but also dealt with ineffectively when they are.
In an online survey that the government launched to better understand the types of harassing and violent behaviours that take place in Canadian workplaces, 30 per cent of respondents reported they had experienced sexual harassment at work.
Of the 1,349 respondents, 1,005 identified as female.
Respondents who experienced sexual harassment tended to work in environments with a higher ratio of men in positions of power. The report also found employees are often unaware of the reporting procedures that are available.
In response, the government announced proposed new legislation that would make it mandatory that all federal workplaces report and investigate sexual harassment allegations under health and safety regulations, and refer the matter to a trained, neutral third party if the incident is not dealt with to the complainant’s satisfaction.
A victim can also pursue criminal charges. That too is difficult — for complaints lodged both inside and outside the workplace.
According to an October Stats Canada report — From arrest to conviction: court outcomes of police-reported sexual assaults in Canada, 2009 to 2014 — just one in five sexual assaults reported by police led to a completed court case within the six-year reference period — half the proportion of completions for physical assaults.
In addition, about one in 10 sexual assaults reported by police led to a criminal conviction, and seven per cent resulted in a custody sentence.
This is compared with 23 per cent and eight per cent, respectively, for physical assaults.
“Sexual assault is a gendered violent crime prone to high levels of underreporting and low case retention in the Canadian criminal justice system,” the report states.
“According to an analysis of crimes reported by police, between 2009 and 2014 there were 117,238 sexual assaults. A charge was laid by police in less than half (41 per cent) of these incidents.”
When internal policies and criminal charges fail, the next option is often taking the perpetrator or the employer to civil court. However the option is not likely to succeed if you are pursuing it alone.
Victoria-based lawyer Rajinder Sahota said not only are people reluctant to come forward but the costs associated with filling a civil lawsuit are prohibitive.
“You’ve got to look at the expense as opposed to what the possible damages at the end of the day would be,” Sahota said. “That ratio just doesn’t add up unless you’re doing something like a class action. Which is what we’re doing where you can spread those costs across multiple survivors.”
Sahota’s firm Acheson, Sweeney, Foley and Sahota launched a hotline for current and former members of the Canadian Armed Forces to report incidents of sexual assault or harassment. The hotline has become a way for the firm to mount a growing class action lawsuit against the Forces.
Sahota said well over a 100 people have contacted his firm to speak about their experiences. He hopes his firm’s class action will provide reconciliation for survivors of assault and work as a catalyst for change.
|Victoria-based lawyer Rajinder Sahota launched a hotline for military personnel to report sexual assaults.
“Coming forward (individually) hasn’t brought change. That’s why we’re hoping that the class action lawsuit will bring change. All the evidence that I’ve come across to date demonstrates that people saying it should change isn’t enough of an incentive,” he said.
Sexual harassment, assault a human rights issue: lawyer
What many might not realize, is that harassment or assault in the workplace is considered discriminatory, similar to racism. Which opens a fourth avenue: a human rights complaint.
Laura Track, a human rights lawyer with the Human Rights Clinic, works with clients who have decided to hold their employer monetarily accountable for sex-discrimination violations through the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
“It’s not uncommon for people to be surprised that human rights law takes sexual harassment seriously, because our experience is that sexual harassment is so often not taken seriously,” Track told Black Press Media.
It’s that normalization has led many – including the clients Track has represented – to believe it’s an expectation they should have as part of their job.
“I think it really speaks to just how normalized sexual harassment has become. So many people experience it in so many different facets of their lives, that thinking about it as a human rights violation is counter-intuitive,” she said.
No matter which route a complainant decides to take their case, the vulnerability to backlash is consistent, regardless of where they stand on the income spectrum.
It’s an all-too-common reasoning a woman faces when contemplating whether to report the incident, or just let it go.
“Your desire to build your career, to advance in the workplace, is sometimes dependent on the very person who is harassing you,” Track said. “How do you do that in a way that doesn’t mean your career is over?”
Political arena includes instances of subtle sexism
Since beginning her political career, Furstenau said she has noticed subtle forms of sexism in both local and provincial government.
“I get asked about, and I have my appearance commented on, far more than my male colleagues do. People aren’t talking about what my male colleagues are wearing, or how they look, or if they look tired or do they need to have some food,” she said.
She said she’s also experienced uncomfortable touching.
“What I’ve reflected on and talked about with my friends and colleagues is when those moments happen to us as women we’re in a doubly vulnerable position,” she said.
“One, we’re uncomfortable with what’s happening and two, the onus is on us to explain to the person why their behaviour is out of line and often it’s not a comfortable thing to do so that carries on.”
She added that unless politicians insist on an evolution in parliamentary practice and politics, harassment will remain fundamentally the same, creating an exclusive and uninviting environment.
“The goal should be that this is an everyone’s world,” she said. “I would say we’re not going to see a fundamental shift in the makeup of our legislatures and our parliaments as long as we accept that it’s a man’s world.”
During his time studying sexual harassment, Anderson said he has undoubtedly seen change in a positive direction, although “uneven and incomplete.”
“Women have made gains in most or maybe all fields, though at different rates,” Anderson said. “A variety of professions that were entirely or heavily male-dominated are now at par for women and men. Harassment is just one of the barriers to full social equality.”
He said coming forward and standing up against sexual harassment can lead to finding allies who can add to the voice against a harasser.
Furstenau believes the Me Too hashtag conversations have worked as a catalyst to bring forward the notion that the world is a long way from women feeling safe in their workplaces or in society.
“I’d like my daughter, who is now 10 years old, not to have a Me Too moment,” she said. “But at this point we prepare our daughters for this world as opposed to having the faith that they’re not going to experience sexual violence or sexual harassment.”
With files from Ashley Wadhwani