Metro Morning

Female police officers risk 'career suicide' with harassment complaints, lawyer says

The lawyer for a female police officer who has filed a human rights complaint alleging workplace sexual harassment says most victims are afraid to come forward for fear that speaking out will amount to "career suicide."

Lawyer for Const. Heather McWilliam says harassment created 'toxic environment'

Lawyer Kate Hughes said female police officers are often afraid to complain about workplace harassment (CBC)

The lawyer for a female police officer who has filed a human rights complaint alleging workplace sexual harassment against her Toronto police supervisors says most victims are afraid to come forward for fear that speaking out will amount to "career suicide."

Kate Hughes, who is representing Const. Heather McWilliam at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, spoke about her client's case on Metro Morning Friday.

McWilliam, 33, is alleging she was subjected to routine and constant sexual harassment over a number of years as a Toronto police constable. McWilliam has said she endured sexual jokes and was frequently called degrading names.

She also alleges her supervising officer once passed around photos — taken from Facebook — of her and other female officers in bikinis.

Toronto Police Services spokesperson Mark Pugash has told CBC News that police can't comment on McWilliam's allegations while her case is before the tribunal. TPS is expected to present their side of the case later in the tribunal, which will adjourn after today's session and resume in the New Year.

Here's an excerpt of Hughes' interview on Metro Morning with host Matt Galloway

MG: Describe some of the examples of the sexual harassment that your client is alleging happened?

"She was subject to constant jokes, banter, sexual advances, all of which she put up with to be part of the team."

"The tipping point for her was when her supervisors … started making her the subject of the jokes, and the jokes were sexual. What caused her to come forward to the Human Rights Tribunal was when she was subject to a pattern of conduct where she was humiliated publicly."

Hughes said this public humiliation happened during "parade," when officers line up at the start of their shift.

"Her sergeant started making jokes about her. She had previously been with the RCMP so he made jokes sexually about her riding horses."

"And this was all not only condoned, but thought to be extremely funny by the supervisors. This all caused her to be extremely embarrassed and caused her to bring forward a complaint."

Lawyer Kate Hughes speaks outside the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario with her client, Const. Heather McWilliam, right. (Martin Trainor, CBC)

MG: If true, how would you characterize that kind of behaviour by senior officers in the context of today's workforce?

"It's a police force that on paper has great sexual harassment policies, but in practice, the policewomen tell me that the supervisors are, they call them 'dinosaurs.' That it is very much a toxic environment for women."

Hughes said many female officers who contacted her since McWilliam's case began say they work with some great young male officers who treat them with respect but many of the problems come from older officers in supervisor positions.

"It's an atmosphere where women are considered threatening," said Hughes. "And they make women the object of jokes in the workplace."

MG: How would your client cope with these alleged acts?

"Many women would deflect, they would try to ignore, they would try to fit in … but at some point it becomes a tipping point where they literally become sick because the environment is toxic for them."

MG: The Toronto Police Services Board has denied McWilliam's allegations on behalf of the officers who are named. It says this tribunal should not be considering whether sexual harassment is systemic because these are only the allegations of a single female officer. If this is a systemic problem, why haven't other officers come forward?

"Other officers have come forward and their cases have either been settled or dealt with internally and not tracked."

"Mostly the women haven't come forward because they're absolutely scared. There is very much a culture in police that you don't air your dirty laundry."

"They know that if they do complain, that is career suicide."

"Other women have told me when they raise complaints, they are shunned and ostracized.

Const. Heather McWilliam's case before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario will continue today before adjourning for the year and resuming in January.