A tsunami of emotions: sexual harassment at work

The cover is off and Harvey Weinstein has been exposed. Now stories of sexual harassment are spilling out in the news, in social media and on phone-ins such as Checkup. Producer Anna-Liza Kozma asks, will increased awareness of such an age-old problem make a difference?
The Union of British Columbia Performers/ACTRA is hosting a women in television and movies town hall to share grievances on sexual harassment in Vancouver on October 30th. (Shutterstock)

Stop judging women who stay silent about sexual harassment — their fears are real.

Nobody can predict their reaction to the reality of that moment.

The more people who know something bad is happening, the less likely anyone will try to stop it.

These are three of the startling insights revealed on CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup when Canadians were asked, "Is sexual harassment still too common in the workplace?"

The response to sexual harassment for most people can best be described as shock, a horrible freezing of the moment because of the unexpected nature of it, explains Charlene Senn, a social psychologist at the University of Windsor who is an expert on women and gender studies.

"We know as psychologists that people are very bad at predicting what they will do in any given situation," she told me. "Someone is trying to do their job and then this unexpected thing happens out of context. They freeze; they are in shock. The action of the perpetrator doesn't make a lot of sense."

"The perpetrator behaves as if nothing is going to happen to them; the victim often freezes; they want to get themselves out of there, they don't want to draw attention to themselves."

"Also, the more people who know about a bad event, the more witnesses there are, the less likely something will happen. We call it the diffusion of responsibility. We tell ourselves: Someone else will take care of it."

This kind of group immobility often happens in emergency situations: take the example of someone being attacked in a crowded subway.

"Each individual witness in a large group feels they can't or shouldn't take action. But if there is only one witness it is more likely that one will step in."

Don't be a bystander

"We need to talk about this [syndrome]. The minute you have those thoughts of harassment not being your business, you have to stop them. Tell yourself:  I need to take action here. We are each responsible to take action and not just be a bystander. That's the only way to stop it. Name it, identify it. Say that won't fly here. Otherwise we continue to allow this kind of behaviour to be the norm just as in Hollywood Harvey Weinstein's behaviour was considered norm. We need to create a new norm."

So how do we do that? 

"We have to stop the conversations around why she didn't do something. The woman involved is the only one who knows what she can and can't do. When people think that bad things will happen to them (when they disclose harassment) they are often right. Their fears are not irrational," argues Dr. Senn.

"Also some people want to make it the victim's responsibility to stop other women being hurt and that is never the case. It is always the perpetrator's responsibility not the victim's."

Vancouver-based labour and human rights  lawyer, Lindsay Lyster has shepherded many women through sexual harassment cases and has seen the toll they take. "There's embarrassment and shame. They feel that somehow that they are responsible. And there's the concern that in pursuing a case their past sexual relationships will be exposed and dredged up in public forum. There's also the fears of employment repercussions and the difficulty of getting another job."

"It takes a lot of emotional, financial and social resources to bring a complaint forward. And not everyone has that. Many people do it because they want the assurance that it's not going to happen to anyone else, that's key," explains Lyster.

Dr. Charlene Senn agrees that it's important to respect individuals who decide not to pursue harassment claims. "The way forward is when people come together as a group. It's easier as a group.  And much harder for a perpetrator to get away with it, as we are seeing in the Harvey Weinstein case."

"And we need to stop unhelpful comments. When someone does disclose (harassment) and if the people know the perpetrator they often say unhelpful things like — 'Are you sure you didn't misunderstand?' — They don't want to think these bad things about someone they know."

The positive impact of social media campaigns like # MeToo is that it reduces the stigma for women coming forward "who might feel they have to hide," says Dr. Senn.

"Each woman can feel that her experience is unique but when we talk about our experiences we see the commonalities and that creates solidarity. And that is important. Each woman feels less alone. But I would say it is important to ask — 'What then? What do we do as a society to respond to this problem?'"

"People are saying this is the moment that there will be change. Now people will finally realize! But we have had many of these moments in the past."

Lawyer Lindsay Lyster, who is also president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, hopes a broader public discussion on sexual harassment will lead to more practical supports for women who do come forward, whether individually or together.

"The single greatest thing would be to ensure there is a tangible support for people. As I mentioned, it takes great resources to bring a complaint forward. And it is unreasonable to expect someone to do it without representation. It's expensive to hire a lawyer. So either through legal aid, or dedicated clinics or some other mechanism, we need financial supports in place to enable people to bring complaints forward."

When Checkup opened the phone lines to women and men across the country, stories of sexual harassment flooded in. Whether it was working as a medic on an oil rig in the Atlantic Ocean or hammering sheet metal in a factory or serving meals on an airplane, there was an uncanny similarity to the experience of what the Ontario Human Rights Code terms "engaging in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought to be known to be unwelcome."

It proved the experience is real and you don't have to dig far to get the stories. 

And as the #MeToo movement has shown, there are lots of them. It's what Lindsay Lyster calls "helping society to start to scratch the top of the iceberg". 

Now that the stories are spilling out in the news, in social media and on phone-ins such as Checkup, the question is, will increased awareness of such an age-old problem make a difference?


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