Torontonians add their tweets to #MeToo, raising thorny issues concerning workplace sexual harassment

As Torontonians share stories about sexual harassment and assault through the hashtag #MeToo, a survey finds that employers can do more to encourage workers to speak up.

Survey results released on Friday suggest workplaces do more to help employees report harassment

Viktoria Belle, co-founder of the Sexual Assault Action Coalition, cautions that campaigns like #MeToo put the onus on survivors to disclose what happened to them, rather than on those who inflicted the harm in the first place. (CBC News)

When she was a teenager, Samantha Aunger was working as an extra on a Toronto TV set when her older male colleagues began propositioning her and making sexual comments.

"They had no problem trying to touch you," she told CBC Toronto. "We were given the impression … don't say anything."

On Sunday night, Aunger joined women around the world in tweeting out her story with the hashtag #MeToo.

The hashtag was popularized by actress Alyssa Milano, who encouraged people to speak out if they've experienced sexual harassment or assault — the latest chapter in the ongoing response to allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Actress Alyssa Milano suggested women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted post the message on Twitter on Sunday. A flood of messages has erupted across Twitter as well as Facebook and Instagram. (John Shearer/Associated Press)

Though Aunger's story is now more than 20 years old, the problem of harassment, especially in workplaces, persists.

Angus Reid's most recent study on sexual harassment in the workplace, from 2014, found that three in 10 Canadians reported being on the receiving end of "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or sexually-charged talk while on the job."

Women, the study noted, were found to be four times as likely to have been harassed.

Doing more to help bystanders speak up

Aunger said when she was harassed as a teenager, despite colleagues all around, "no one stopped it."

Then and now, "the tendency of workplace harassment is for them to remain underground, to go under-reported," said Janice Rubin, a Toronto employment lawyer. 

Her firm, Rubin Thomlinson, put out the results of a survey on Friday that found employers can do more to make sure employees who see discrimination and harassment end up reporting it, recommending "mechanisms" like anonymous complaint lines as well as policies that specifically target workplace witnesses. 

Toronto employment lawyer Janice Rubin's firm did a survey that found while many respondents were willing to report harassment they witnessed, employers could provide more tools to enable them to do so. (CBC)

"The survey showed that the people were prepared to [report,]" she said, "and the triggers were a sense of social justice … and empathy."

'A lot of victims don't come forward'

It's also incumbent on employers to take action, even if no formal complaint has been made, said James Donato, who owns a business that provides sexual harassment training and investigates workplace incidents.

He says in the sexual harassment cases he's looked into, he often finds that problems are allowed to fester and get worse because managers fail to be proactive.

"A lot of victims don't come forward. They don't want to go through the investigation; they don't want the attention; they're afraid maybe of being terminated," he said, noting that the problem is especially acute for foreign workers who are unsure of their rights. 

Donato and Rubin both say Bill 132, passed in 2016 and aimed at toughening up Ontario's workplace sexual harassment law, has helped make things better in the year since it's become law. 

"It's prompted more people to come forward and make complaints, and it's heightened the quality of the workplace investigations that are being conducted," said Rubin.

No one-size-fits-all for survivors

But Viktoria Belle, co-founder of the Dandelion Initiative, cautions there is no one-size-fits-all approach for survivors of sexual harassment and assault — what helps one person heal won't necessarily help another.

"You don't have to go to HR; you don't have to go to the police. There are groups that will help you find justice in other ways," she said.

Following an alleged assault at a Little Italy bar, the Dandelion Initiative launched a training program called the Safe Bars Project that aims to teach bar employees and owners how to create safer spaces. 

The Sexual Assault Action Coalition, co-founded by Belle, held a protest last January outside College Street Bar, the site of an alleged sexual assault. (CBC News)

Disclosing what happened isn't the right choice for everyone, said Belle, adding that it can be an issue with campaigns like #MeToo.

"People get burnt out by that, and when they see another campaign that says, 'Tell the world that you're a survivor' … it creates barriers," she said.

"What if the social media campaign said, 'Have you ever sexually assaulted someone?,"' asked Belle. "Shifting that narrative so the onus isn't on survivors is so important."

With files from Alison Chiasson