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The Globe and Mail

To provide leadership in workplace-harassment reckoning, Canada’s executives must be informed

Dr. Jennifer Espey & David Herle are principals and co-founders of the Gandalf Group Inc.

The media has been chronicling the dramatic downfall of powerful men who committed sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. To be a watershed moment, media attention shouldn't be about a dozen or so high-profile men; it should be about the millions of women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace. This is not the problem of a dozen men, this is a problem for millions of women.

At the very least, two elements are needed to make this a watershed moment. First, to recognize that being sexually harassed in the workplace is a common experience among women, and second, to encourage the reporting of harassment and assault when it happens.

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Sexual harassment isn't rare. In 2014, an Angus Reid Institute study found that 43 per cent of Canadian women experienced sexual harassment in their career, compared with 12 per cent of men. If you have two daughters, you should expect one to be sexually harassed in her career – and likely more than once. That is the reality for women in Canada's workplaces.

Our recent C-Suite study suggests that executives believe it is their responsibility to provide leadership on this issue. However, they have some catching up to do in terms of the extent of the problem. More than half of executives believe sexual harassment is infrequent or rare, while just 30 per cent believe it is common or frequent. Those who have heard of a sexual-harassment case in their own company are twice as likely to believe that it is a common occurrence. This 30 per cent represents the hopeful start of the watershed. The reporting by victims or bystanders is the genesis of this awareness.

Most believe their company is better at responding to sexual harassment than preventing it. And even still, Canada's C-Suite is aware that most sexual harassment in their own company is under-reported. Just one-quarter of executives believe that sexual harassment is reported most of the time in their own company. One-third believe it is only reported some of the time and just 29 per cent believe it is rarely reported. In fact, studies in Canada and in the United States find that at least 75 per cent of cases of sexual harassment are not reported at all. A U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found in 2016 the main reasons for not reporting harassment are fear of retaliation, disbelief or being convinced that no action will be taken.

Promisingly, one-third of executives believe sexual harassment is a problem in their industry. Fewer see it as a problem in their own company, despite the fact most of them believe most cases in their company go unreported. About 12 per cent of women in the Angus Reid study reported they had been sexually harassed in the past two years. If a company has 10 or more female employees, the odds are that one has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace recently. Essentially, virtually all executives should hear about sexual-harassment complaints in their company if they have created a culture and process that gives victims confidence that reporting is the safest and best option.

Actor Mia Kirshner speaks at the #AfterMeToo Symposium about her personal experience as a survivor of sexual harassment, and how the groundswell around people coming forward with their own stories has started a movement for change.
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