On December 6, 1989, the term ‘femicide’ was perhaps unceremoniously added to the Canadian lexicon when Mark Lepine entered École Polytechnique at the Université de Montréal and opened fire on a group of female students he blamed for his failure to gain entrance into the engineering program. By the time he directed his fire on himself, 14 of the women he attacked were killed and 10 others were injured, in what has since been referred to as the “Montreal Massacre.”
Ever since then, on December 6 of each year, Canadians have come together to honor the 14 victims—as well as all those who have been affected by gender-based violence—as part of the country’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
And while this observance is naturally a somber one, this year’s anniversary will be especially poignant for Canadians as they reflect not only on the rise in gender-based violence within their own country, but also on that which has so heavily saturated media coverage of conflicts abroad, including the alarming use of rape and sexual violence against women throughout the war in Ukraine, and now the weaponization of women in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
But while war is certainly pervaded by gender-based violence, even on the home front Canadians are battling a growing epidemic of domestic violence and abuse (sexual, physical, verbal, psychological) against women—something that haunts them at home, at work, in stores, in parks, on poorly lit streets at night—even well-lit streets at night—in parking lots, and wherever else they may go; it happens anywhere and everywhere.
So much so, in fact, that according to the latest statistics from the Canadian Women’s Foundation, as much as two-thirds of people in Canada know at least one woman who is a victim of violence or abuse, while nearly five million women—or almost a third of all Canadian women over the age of 15—report that they have experienced sexual assault at least once…compared to just 8 percent of men. Even more alarmingly, research from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability reveals that a woman is murdered every 48 hours in Canada, most often at the hands of someone she knew, like an intimate partner or family member—making women vulnerable to violence no matter where they are or who they’re with, and understandably subjecting many women to anxiety, hypervigilance, paranoia, and despair.
Gender-Based Violence in the Canadian Workplace
Given this, violence and abuse against women tend to have a considerable presence in the workplace—and in more ways than one. For starters, while money is (or should be) the least of anyone’s concerns when it comes to such a perilous situation, it is estimated that Canadian employers lose nearly $78 million a year due to both direct and indirect costs of domestic violence. Among these costs include:
- Loss of productivity and absenteeism, as one study conducted by Dr. Audra Bowlus, professor of economics at Western University, revealed that survivors of gender-based violence lose up to a month of work a year due to actual absences, lateness, inattentiveness, and trouble concentrating on tasks;
- Higher healthcare spending and the subsequent organizational losses that come with poor health outcomes, as women with histories of violence or abuse have significantly higher incidences of depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders, substance use disorders, and physical health problems (including chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disorders and heart disease); and
- Higher turnover, as nearly half of employees who have experienced domestic violence have had to leave a job due to safety concerns
Moreover, domestic violence has been found to be the most rapidly growing type of violence in the Canadian workplace, as more than half of survivors of domestic violence in one study reported that at least one type of abusive act happened at or near their workplace—presenting an even greater threat to the safety and security of the work environment itself.
With all that in mind, experts and advocates continuously urge employers to treat domestic violence—irrespective of where it takes place—like the workplace issue that it is, reminding them that attempting to leave an abusive situation is in fact the most dangerous time for a survivor of domestic violence, as women are six times more likely to be attacked or killed after ending a relationship or moving out of a shared environment, and furthermore are often pressured to stay in abusive relationships due to fiscal, familial, and cultural concerns, including:
- Lack of housing;
- Lack of substantial income;
- Lack of childcare/child support;
- Lack of social support; and
- Cultural stigmas around sexual abuse, divorce or separation, and help-seeking
They urge employers to bear in mind that workplace support is often the difference between life and death for many survivors; between being able to seek shelter from harm, financially providing for their children, receiving the help that they need, and being on the streets or in harm’s way, losing possession of their children, and being silenced or unheard…
Addressing Violence Against Women in the Workplace
That said, to be the positive difference in survivors’ lives, there are a number of strategies that employers should put into practice to identify, monitor, and support those experiencing any sort of violence or abuse at home.
The first of these, of course, is to have a policy in place that spells out the organization’s commitment to survivors and their protection both in the workplace and beyond. This policy should, above all else, underscore the prioritization of survivors’ safety and privacy, expounding how confidentiality will be maintained. It should also include a clear definition of domestic abuse, enumerating the warning signs of domestic abuse that employees should be mindful of; include clear, perhaps step-by-step instructions on how workers can inform their employer of their predicament, with a list of code words or signals that staff can use to communicate if they are in danger; a list of what will be done to help them (including workplace accommodations—but more on that later); and a list of additional resources, including referrals to helplines and the organization’s wellbeing program.
From there, it is paramount that organizations train and educate their staff on domestic violence—something that an alarming 80 percent of Canadian employers currently fail to do. Oftentimes, given the intimate, sometimes even lifelong nature of the situation, many women will remain completely unaware that they’re being abused, which as noted comes with harmful if not fatal consequences for them. Having access to education and training through work is often the very thing that will apprise women of their abusive situation and empower them to break free from it. Thus, when it comes to what training and educational materials should cover, organizations should be sure to include mention of:
- The disproportionate risks that women face when it comes to domestic violence, including that women are five times more likely to experience sexual assault and violent crime compared to men;
- The disproportionate risks that women face when it comes to cyber violence, including the fact that women account for 84 percent of those who experience sexual violations associated with cybercrime, as well as stalking, harassment, and other online threats;
- The disproportionate risks that women face when it comes to DV-related gun violence; and
- The varying risks that women face depending on their intersectional identities, including that:
- Indigenous women are about 20 percent more likely to experience physical or sexual assault compared to non-indigenous women (and are nearly seven times more likely to be killed);
- Younger women (aged 15 to 24) are five times more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted by a non-intimate partner, whereas older women account for nearly 60 percent of survivors of elder abuse;
- Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women are three to four times more likely than heterosexual women to experience intimate partner violence;
- Women with disabilities are three times more likely to experience violent victimization and experience greater difficulty when attempting to leave an abuser or seek help; and that
- Immigrant women are at a much higher risk of domestic violence due to economic dependence, language barriers, and a lack of knowledge about community resources
Moreover, as women aren’t always aware of available support resources, aren’t always able to safely reach out for help, or simply aren’t comfortable doing so, it’s imperative that organizations train their workforce—especially their leaders, managers, supervisors, and any workplace ambassadors—on how to identify survivors of domestic abuse among their teams, spotlighting warning signs such as:
- Chronic absenteeism or lateness
- Increased mistakes or errors
- Inability to concentrate
- Decreased productivity
- Social withdrawal or isolation
- Complaints of unusual or non-specific illness or ailments
- Unexplained injuries
- Signs of extreme fatigue
- Signs of fear, anxiety, depression, or paranoia
- Changes in appearance, including shakiness or uneasiness; clenched jaws or fists; baggy clothing, etc.
In addition to strategies dedicated to informing and identifying survivors of violence or abuse, perhaps the most important strategy that employers need to prioritize when it comes to addressing violence against women is what accommodations, benefits, services, and resources they can put in place to ensure that survivors get the timely and effective support they need.
This includes, among a broad range of actions, providing survivors with reasonable accommodations and adjustments, including but not limited to:
- Paid “safe days” for survivors to attend medical appointments or court hearings, obtain a protection or restraining order, or attend to any other related obligation;
- Flexible work, schedule, and leave options, including temporary or permanent adjustments to schedules or locations;
- Temporary or permanent adjustments to survivors’ available contact information; assigned parking spots; work email, phone, or fax number; or workstation;
- Temporary redistribution of work and lightening of survivors’ workload; and
- Escorts to accompany survivors to and from the workplace
Employers should also be mindful to collaborate directly with known survivors to discern which accommodations or adjustments would be most helpful for each individual. Additional support that employers can provide or refer employees to include:
- Access to unemployment insurance benefits;
- Access to extensive childcare benefits or referrals to local childcare services;
- Access to on-site or referrals to off-site support groups; and
- Referrals to domestic violence resource centers, helplines, shelters, and other organizations
Finally, the most important resource that employers have at their disposal to strengthen their support for survivors of domestic abuse is their wellbeing programs. By investing in comprehensive, customizable, and holistic wellbeing programs, employers can ensure that their employees have access to:
- Trauma-informed and culturally competent clinicians, counselors, and crisis support;
- Multiple pathways of support, including via phone, video, or text messaging;
- Legal, financial, and familial assistance;
- Clinical and counseling support for their children;
- Coaching support to help them plan a way out of their situation; as well as
- A host of additional wellness support to help them get their lives back on track once a safer situation has been secured
Additionally, employers can also leverage their wellbeing programs to further strengthen their workplaces’ resiliency against domestic violence by implementing:
- Organizational assessments to monitor for risk of violence or abuse;
- Leadership and manager training to ensure that staff know how to intervene in an evolving crisis; and
- Mentor- and ambassadorship programs to promote awareness and literacy around domestic violence and reduce stigma surrounding help-seeking
As violence against women continues to surge amidst escalations of wars and geopolitical conflicts; the rise of remote work models that keep women trapped at home with their abusers; and the alarming reversal of women’s rights, it is only going to become more important for employers to take a stand and show their commitment to their female workers, and these are only some of the many ways in which they can do just that.