A wave of high-profile sexual misconduct allegations is bringing attention to the widespread issue of workplace sexual harassment.
While accused celebrities are losing jobs and endorsements, Saskatchewan advocates say it may take more time to see action in other industries.
Lisa Miller is the executive director at the Regina Sexual Assault Centre. She said media coverage of sexual misconduct and assault has led to an increase in calls to the crisis line from people sharing their own experiences.
Miller said the crisis line averages 20 calls a month, but in November it was closer to 40 but most of those do not translate into official reports.
She is also encouraged by the marginal increase in the number of people seeking counselling.
“The true test here would be people feeling able to actually come forward and report it to the authorities and speak publicly about it, and I don’t know if we’re seeing that yet,” Miller said.
The advocate also noted there are many reasons why people who experience assault and sexual harassment don’t report, adding the centre understands and respects those decisions.
“A lot of times outcomes are disappointing for people and the process is drawn out and it’s intrusive and it’s emotional,” she said. “(People are) oftentimes interested in getting on with their life and I think that will continue to be a barrier for people.”
Miller said many people won’t make an official complaint because they’re scared to lose their jobs, or they are worried about facing other subtle repercussions at work.
She does, however, see the recent attention as a way to make progress.
“We are on the verge of a cultural shift, and I hope that is the case, because it is much needed, that’s for sure,” she said. “As long as people keep talking about it, as long as it continues to be on people’s minds, I think we will see some change.”
Culture of acceptance
Kate McEvenue is a counsellor at the Regina Sexual Assault Centre and says power and privilege play a role in who feels comfortable speaking up about sexual harassment.
She said not everyone has the resources or support to see the process through, which is made harder if a workplace has an ingrained “culture of acceptance.”
“It comes down to feeling empowered to going through the systems,” McEvenue said.”(It’s) often incredibly daunting, as you can imagine, in a workplace where your manager may be the person who is sexually harassing you.”
Sexual harassment includes anything from physical contact to unwelcome comments, propositions or jokes of a sexual nature.
McEvenue adds it can sometimes be a grey area because what makes one person feel violated may not be the same for another person.
“It takes place over time and it’s serially committed in a sense. That’s an important piece because it wears a person down and it erodes confidence in the workplace,” she said.
“It erodes comfort and safety in the workplace and that’s why I think it can be violent because all of a sudden going to work can be dangerous or feel incredibly dangerous to a person.”
Where to report
The Saskatchewan Employment Act requires all employers to have a harassment policy in place and any employee has the right to request help from Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) if their employer fails to address an issue.
Victims can also report directly to police.
“What I could tell you, anecdotally, is that it takes a long time and that it is a difficult thing to prove and it is a difficult thing to be heard around,” McEvenue said.
Her advice to people who may be experiencing sexual harassment is to document incidents for evidence if it comes to making a claim. Talking to a trusted person at work can also help.
McEvenue added counselling can help people not give up when it may feel like the system is stacked against them.
“It can take a long time, people may be unemployed in the interim and that can all be incredibly stressful for them in their personal lives and financial lives. It is very complicated and it takes a lot of personal resilience.”
The province does not track complaints made specifically about sexual harassment, however, OHS received 189 complaints about harassment “based on prohibited grounds” between April 2016 and October 2017.
It also started 15 investigations.
The category includes sexual harassment, along with harassment based on race, religion, sexual orientation, family status, disability, weight, age and nationality.
Regina Police Service tracked 128 reports of sexual assault in 2017, compared to 142 in 2016.
Police also tracked 23 reports of criminal harassment this year compared to 24 last year, but clarified those include all forms of harassment and are not limited to sexual harassment.