For Women's Day, one woman tells her story of harassment during mandatory, unpaid internship

Caught between her university and the company where she interned, the young woman had nowhere to turn when she started being sexually harassed at the office.

'Crummy wages,' unpaid internships leave women vulnerable to sexual harassment, women's groups say

Laurie Bissonnette was juggling school, two jobs and a demanding, unpaid internship when she found herself the target of sexual harassment with nowhere to turn. (Submitted by Laurie Bissonnette)

Laurie Bissonnette was near the end of a mandatory, unpaid internship when a colleague walked into her office while she was working late one night, closed the door and began making sexually charged comments.

For months, he had been making similar comments, but she'd brushed them off.

Now he was in her office, after hours, when few colleagues were around. Luckily, she was able to de-escalate the situation before it became physical.

Shaken, Bissonnette made sure to never be caught alone in the office again. She reasoned that there was only a little more than a month left in her eight-month internship, and she'd soon be able to extricate herself from the unsettling situation.

The feminist and activist, who is now studying for her master's degree in social work, says she felt at the time she needed to do something, but she wasn't sure what.

She felt neither the university which placed her in the internship nor the company where she was working was clearly responsible for her well-being.

While walking with a female colleague who was about 20 years her senior, the man approached them and directed another offensive sexual remark at Bissonnette.

She turned to the older woman for guidance.

"She agreed it was inappropriate," Bissonnette says. But she discouraged her from reporting it.

Bissonnette is a feminist activist who found herself unsure of what to do when she was harassed during an unpaid internship. (Submitted by Laurie Bissonette )
"I felt so small."

She says she was too exhausted to pursue the matter further: the internship demanded she work at least three days per week, while taking a university course. She was also working two paying jobs to support herself.

"I'm still shy about this situation, because people project the image onto me of this strong feminist activist, and what I really want to say is that everybody can be a survivor of sexual violence."

The economics of silence

Gabrielle Bouchard, president of the Fédération des femmes du Québec, says Bissonnette's story is not uncommon — female interns are particularly vulnerable to harassment and often feel they're not in a position to report it.

Many fields require students to do internships, and for women in those internships, "there's no true recourse to voice their concerns when they face harassment and bullying," Bouchard says.

"They have to be silent in order to not have a long-term impact on their work career or academic career."

Bouchard says it's time to examine what keeps women in precarious and disempowered positions, where they can become targets of abuse.

For example, Bouchard says, internships in female-dominated fields are often unpaid, while "you don't see unpaid internships in male-dominated fields, like engineering."

Bissonnette's field of social work is, indeed, female-dominated: She says there were about two men in a class of 30 students — and their internships were all unpaid.

She says that if she had been paid, she wouldn't have had to work two jobs on the side to support herself, and that may have left her with enough energy to take action against her tormenter.
Laurie Bissonnette, holding the red sign, on the right, marched with the Montreal Coalition for paid internships last November. She is speaking at a coalition rally at Norman Bethune Square on Thursday, March 8 - International Women's Day. (Laurence Meunier/CUTE UQAM)

When her senior colleague put a chill on her attempt to speak about what had happened, she worried that if she pursued it, it might jeopardize her internship and leave her unable to complete her degree, which she'd already been working on for three years.

Bissonnette's story is a familiar one to Marie Boti, a founding member of a Montreal group called Committee of Women of Diverse Origins, which represents many women in low-paying jobs.

"We see violence against women as being paid crummy wages and being in a precarious work situation," Boti says.

#MeToo to #NowWhat?

There's also the issue of who feels free to report harassment and sexual assault.

While the #MeToo movement is providing that online space for many women to share their stories, Bissonnette says it's not as accessible as it seems.

"#MeToo puts a lot of pressure on survivors and victims to come forward," she says. To go to police, for instance, "you have to be a perfect victim."

Sandra Weasley, the head of Stella, a Montreal advocacy group for sex workers, agrees that even within the #MeToo movement, "there's the matter of people not having the same empathy for different women, based on their perception of our worth."
Sandra Wesley, the director of Stella, said women outside the mainstream feel less inclined to report sexual harassment and assault. (CBC)

She says that often, the women coming forward with personal experiences of abuse are in a privileged and safe situation.

If sex workers speak out and have to disclose their line of work, Weasley says it can mean ostracism, unemployment, even being barred from crossing the border into the U.S.

"We need to look at more systemic solutions and have more nuanced conversation that can't just be captured with a hashtag," she says.

Call for interns to strike on International Women's Day

For Bissonnette, concrete measures would include paid internships and the establishment of clear procedures for dealing with sexual harassment and assault by both universities and the firms or agencies that accept interns.

Bissonnette is a member of the Montreal coalition for paid internships, which is calling on interns to strike Thursday, International Women's Day, to demand more control over their working conditions.

The coalition is holding a rally at Norman Bethune Square, near Concordia University's downtown campus, from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m.

The Fédération des femmes du Québec and Women of Diverse Origins are also hosting their own rallies on International Women's Day, in different locations, staggered throughout the day.

About the Author

Elysha Enos

Journalist

Elysha Enos is a journalist with CBC Montreal.