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A large majority of Canadian executives don't believe sexual harassment is a problem at their company – despite nearly a third of them admitting they know of specific cases.

The many workers who have to deal with sexual harassment might be inclined to frame things differently. At least three separate surveys this year have found that significant numbers of Canadian women say they have been sexually harassed in the workplace at some point in their lives.

Can Corporate Canada really be the last to know about sexual harassment?

The Gandalf Group's quarterly C-Suite Survey resulted from interviews in November and December with 153 Canadian executives, 95 per cent of whom were male. When asked if sexual harassment was a problem in their business, 94 per cent of those surveyed chose to disagree.

But a Statistics Canada survey earlier this year of 1,349 respondents, a thousand of whom identified as women, found 30 per cent had experienced workplace sexual harassment. Two separate, more recent surveys align with Statscan's findings: an Insights West study of 451 working Canadian women in November found that half had experienced sexual harassment in their careers, while 56 per cent in an October Abacus Data Inc. survey of 1,500 Canadians said that women are sexually harassed in their workplace.

"When you read it in that context, it seems that [executives] are saying sexual harassment is somebody else's problem," said Marie Clarke Walker, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress. "But it isn't – it's everybody's problem."

After multiple investigations into sexual assault allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein prompted many assault and harassment victims to take their stories public, this fall's edition of the C-Suite Survey sought responses on sexual harassment in the workplace. The results show a profound disconnect between executives' beliefs about the problem and employees' reality.

"There is still quite a significant misunderstanding, or lack of information, around the degree to which sexual harassment occurs in the workplace – and the impact that it has on the workplace," said Tanya van Biesen, executive director of Catalyst Canada, an organization dedicated to promoting progress for women in business.

The core of the issue is workplace culture, and who is in a position to define it, she said. "These are situations dominated by an imbalance of power. … We need greater inclusion of women, which means we need more women at all levels."

In the C-Suite Survey, leaders of larger companies tended to acknowledge a greater degree of awareness of sexual harassment. Sixty per cent of executives of firms with more than 1,000 employees said they'd witnessed or heard of cases at work, but for companies with fewer than 200 workers, that fell to 19 per cent awareness.

There was also variation by industry. A quarter of financial-sector executives said sexual harassment was a problem in their sector, while half of executives polled from the service sector, with financial services removed, called it problematic.

Despite the prevalence of sexual harassment, the majority of corporate leaders believe their organizations have both policies in place to respond to sexual harassment and cultures that help prevent it. Executives who completed the survey tended to be more protective of their own companies' reputations: only 5 per cent said sexual harassment was a problem in their own firm, but a third said it was a problem in their industry. They also believed incidents were more likely to be reported at their own company than in general.

"There was probably some reluctance [among executives] to even report on the degree to which [sexual harassment] is a problem – not just in your industry, but in your actual organization," said Karen Hamberg, vice-president of strategy for Vancouver's Westport Innovations, who took part in the C-Suite Survey. "The data just doesn't bear that out. … There's obviously a disconnect."

Sandy Treagus, who was part of the survey and is chief financial officer of Mountain Equipment Co-op, said that while he personally has not had respond to a sexual-harassment claim in his company, "it would be naive to say that it doesn't happen in our organization. I think, as a leadership group, there's a humility that needs to come with knowing that." The retailer has just begun working on a more comprehensive strategy to address the issue, he says.

Ms. Hamberg listed a number of reasons women don't report harassment or assault incidents: "'There is a concern I wouldn't be taken seriously.' 'Nothing will be done about it.' 'The person I'm reporting this concerning behaviour about is untouchable.' 'There'll be impact on my career.' 'I'll be a troublemaker.' 'I'm embarrassed.' Think of all these reasons and the tremendous courage it takes to initiate one of these investigations and launch a complaint."

To combat this, she said, it all comes back to culture – one that ensures there will be full follow-through when harassment is reported. "It doesn't matter how good the company's policies and procedures are if systems are ignored, or [women] feel complaints won't be taken seriously," she said.

Still, 93 per cent of executives said they believe they have a corporate culture that helps prevent sexual harassment. It's possible, then, that more business leaders need to rethink how corporate culture is created. Inclusion is a crucial first step, Ms. van Biesen said: "Power needs to be shared between the genders."

Some companies make deliberate efforts on this front: Half the executive team of Toronto-area energy-solutions company Enercare Inc. are women, which chief executive John Macdonald says sends a message through the entire company. "People see women in powerful positions, and I think they think twice about engaging in the behaviour," said Mr. Macdonald, who took part in the C-Suite Survey.

Unions have been trying to address workplace harassment for decades, but managers and supervisors should be pro-actively trained, too, to understand their responsibilities to address harassment, Ms. Clarke Walker said. Bystander intervention training is crucial for everyone to stop sexual harassment when they see it. Everyone, men especially, should be aware of what it looks like – and to call out actions that might fall into "grey zones," Ms. van Biesen said. "We have to convey to men that they have a critical role in preventing this from happening."

Great Place to Work Canada compiles a list of the country's best workplaces for women, where at least 90 per cent of of employees say they're treated fairly regardless of gender. Nancy Fonseca, a senior vice-president with the group, said there are four common attributes of harassment-free workplaces: commitment from executives, ongoing dialogues with staff about what harassment looks like, training to ensure that, and swift routes to take action, including confidential phone or e-mail hotlines to report incidents. "They're going out to try and solve the problem before it occurs," she said.

Again, the story starts with inclusion, Ms. Fonseca added. Even on GPWC's broader list of great Canadian businesses, "you'd be hard-pressed to find any organization … that doesn't put a focus on driving women's participation in the workplace."

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