More than half of adult women in Canada have experienced 'unwanted sexual pressure,' online survey suggests

The online survey on sexual harassment was intentionally conducted in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal with hopes that women would feel more 'empowered to answer these questions honestly,' the chair of a research company says.

Survey conducted in wake of Harvey Weinstein scandal, in hopes women would feel 'empowered'

The scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein, seen here last January, has brought renewed attention to sexual harassment, both in Hollywood and for women from all walks of life. A new survey suggests 53 per cent of Canadian women have experienced 'unwanted sexual pressure.' (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

More than half of adult women in Canada, or 53 per cent, have experienced "unwanted sexual pressure" and more than one in 10 Canadians — both men and women — say sexual harassment of women in their workplace is "really quite common," according to a survey released Wednesday.

The findings "represent numbers that are really quite striking," said Bruce Anderson, chair of Abacus Data, the research company that conducted the survey. Applied to the total Canadian population, the results suggest that eight million women in this country have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives.     

Abacus conducted the survey between Oct. 20 and Oct. 23 — a time when the issue of sexual harassment was top of mind amid explosive allegations that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had been making unwanted advances toward actresses and other women for decades. Some of the women have alleged they were sexually assaulted. 

The timing of the survey was intentional, Anderson told CBC News, because "the Weinstein news was perhaps a bit of a tipping point in the debate about this kind of behaviour in society and in the workplace."

Anderson said he hoped the social media discussions that ensued — such as the #MeToo Twitter movement — have led women to feel more "empowered to answer these questions honestly."

One of the survey questions said: "Lately there have been stories in the news media about sexual harassment of women in Hollywood. Have you ever personally experienced unwanted sexual pressure?"

In response, five per cent of respondents said they had experienced unwanted sexual pressure "very often," seven per cent said "often" and 41 per cent said "occasionally." Forty-six per cent said they had "never" experienced unwanted sexual pressure. 

European Parliament member Terry Reintke, centre, holds a placard with the hashtag '#MeToo during a debate to discuss preventive measures against sexual harassment and abuse in the EU. People around the world have joined the social media campaign to speak out against sexual harassment against women. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

The survey also asked Canadians — both men and women — about sexual harassment in their workplaces. 

Twelve per cent of the respondents (10 per cent of men and 14 per cent of women) said sexual harassment of women was "really quite common" in their workplace. Forty-four per cent (43 per cent of men and 44 per cent of women) said it was "infrequent but does happen."

Fewer than half the respondents (44 per cent) said sexual harassment of women "doesn't happen" in their workplaces. 

Most of those surveyed (63 per cent of men and 77 per cent of women) believed harassers didn't face any consequences for their actions. 

The fact that men, in addition to women, are acknowledging that sexual harassment is happening in their own workplaces is important, Anderson said. With more people talking about the problem, he hopes society is heading for a "new normal."

People will no doubt dispute the survey findings, Anderson said — with some people insisting the problem is overstated and others saying the issue is much worse than the survey suggests. Some will argue that what constitutes "harassment" or "unwanted sexual pressure" should be clearly defined, he said. 

But those definitions don't matter, he said, because the behaviour is "unwanted in the mind of the person who doesn't want it." 

Abacus Data conducted the survey online with 1,500 Canadians ranging in age from 18 to over 60. A "random sample" of people taken from a "large representative panel of over 500,000 Canadians" were invited to complete the survey. The company said it weighted the data to ensure the sample reflected census population data according to age, gender, educational attainment and region. 

The margin of error "for a comparable probability-based random sample of 1,500" is plus or minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20, the company said. 


Nicole Ireland is a reporter with The Canadian Press

With files from The Associated Press