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  • 9 April 2024
  • 2 months

Workplace Sexual Violence: Current Trends and Possible Solutions

Emily Fournier

Marketing and Communications Manager

May marks the beginning of Sexual Violence Prevention Month here in Canada, providing employers with the perfect and much-needed opportunity to dive into the critical issue that is sexual violence in the workplace, including what causes it and, more importantly, what can be done about it.

According to the latest statistics, sexual violence is steadily on the rise across the nation; in fact, it’s the only violent crime in Canada that is not declining. As it stands, nearly half of all workers have experienced—and more than half have borne witness to—some type of sexual violence or harassment at work in the last year alone; the vast majority of which were perpetrated by men and carried out against women—particularly women of color, indigenous women, and women with disabilities—and sexual and gender minorities.

Among the types of sexual violence, harassment, and other forms of misconduct most common to the workplace include:

  • Unwanted physical contact or sexual touching, reported by a whopping 78 percent of women in one study
  • Sexual attacks or non-consensual sexual activity, which includes being forced or attempting to be forced into unwanted sexual activity either by physical coercion (attack), or by being drugged, intoxicated, manipulated (in which case consent cannot be given)
  • Inappropriate comments, including sexual jokes, unwanted sexual attention, catcalls, whistles, or inappropriate conversations
  • Distribution of sexually explicit materials, experienced by two-thirds of women in the same study
  • Cyberabuse, which includes any unwanted sexual behavior online and of which women account for almost 85 percent of all those who experience online sexual harassment

But despite the known prevalence of these behaviors, researchers agree that these incidents are still vastly undercounted, as only a mere 5 percent of cases are officially reported—80 percent lower than for any other violent crime.

And there’s good reason for this, or rather, reasons. Because the truth is, for victims of sexual violence or harassment, the circumstances are stacked against them. 8 times out of 10, the victim knows their offender; not only that, but so do all the people around them—the same people the victim would want to turn to for help. This puts tremendous pressure on victims to remain silent—if they’re even aware that what happened to them is assault (Findings show that only a third of Canadians understand the concept of consent, and struggle to always identify assault when it happens because it’s someone they know). For those that do speak out, national data reveals that at least 1 in 5 victims are blamed for their assault. But again, that’s just the national snapshot.

In other studies, like the one just recently released on sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces, findings suggest a more widespread prevalence of victim-blaming, or what is aptly called “secondary victimization.” In these reports, a staggering 88 percent of those who experienced sexual harassment or assault were transferred, suspended, fired, or lost a shift as a result of speaking out, while up to two-thirds of victims reported facing some sort of negative consequence for reporting their assault, including exclusion, bullying, blame, retaliation, or reprisal. As a result, more than a third of victims cite the fear of consequences as their reason for not speaking up—and the reality is even grimmer for black and indigenous women, women with disabilities, and sexual and gender minorities, as research shows that their testimonials are taken less seriously, that their perpetrators are punished less severely, and that their consequences for speaking up are greater compared to those of more privileged groups.

Worst of all, there’s the fact that less than one percent of reported sexual assaults leads to an offender being convicted—significantly less than the percent of cases classified as unfounded. This results in two rather unpleasant scenarios: the first being that victims are only further pressured into silence, believing that nothing will be done about their assault and that their offender will go unpunished; the second being that ignorant peers may be more likely to doubt or mistrust their peers’ testimonials, taking these disparities at face value, resulting in more real or perceived stigma.

Preventive Solutions: Addressing Sexual Violence & Its Causes

With these outcomes in mind, it becomes clear that retaliatory measures are not enough to limit the spread of sexual violence—in the workplace or anywhere else. A “bad apples” approach will forever remain futile if the soil is rotten. What employers must adopt instead are preventive measures against sexual violence (it is Prevention Month, after all). This ultimately requires employers to go after the root—and oftentimes overlooked—causes of sexual violence: toxic cultural norms, myths and misconceptions, and a hostile work environment. And one of the best and easiest ways to do this is through training.

Training: Generating Awareness and Creating a Safe Workplace Culture

As research shows time and again, a huge perpetuator of sexual violence, the stigma around it, and thus the lack of reporting on it is ignorance. This includes both employees’ lack of knowledge surrounding sexual violence, and the false beliefs they might hold that escalate the risk of such violence. For example, studies have strongly indicated that male-dominated industries or workplaces have statistically higher risk rates for sexual violence. Why?  Because often found within these environments are masculinity contests and other harbingers of toxic masculinity that pressure men to “prove their manhood” by demonstrating their brawn, toughness, dominance, aggression, and control over others.

On the other hand, for women trapped within these cultures, the expectation that they be nice, agreeable, and submissive makes it easier for men to take advantage of them, as they second-guess their intuition and rationalize men’s aggressive behaviors, believing these to simply be the roles they have to play lest they “fight back” and prove themselves to be “bossy,” “whiny,” or “obstinate.” Likewise, such toxic norms even make it less likely for bystanders to intervene, as the most common reason for inaction cited by respondents in the CAF study, for instance, was that the incident or behavior was “not serious enough”—a clear marker of the normalization of sexual violence within these cultures.

That said, to remediate the effects of these cultural myths and misconceptions, employers can invest in comprehensive training programs for employees, managers, and leaders, that cover important topics such as:

  • Bystander intervention
  • Supporting coworkers through crisis
  • Discovering unconscious bias
  • Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace
  • Understanding microaggressions
  • Trauma and survivor guilt
  • Identifying and managing psychosocial risk factors
  • Sex education:
    • Understanding ‘consent’
    • Setting and respecting boundaries
    • How to say ‘no,’ and how to take ‘no’ for an answer
    • Healthy vs. Toxic relationships
    • Healthy masculinity
    • Unlearning cultural norms that denigrate women
    • Trusting one’s intuition when one feels unsafe

As it stands, the promotion and sharing of information surrounding sexual violence and how to respond to it is considered an essential intervention by a whopping 80 percent of employees, yet at least a third say they’ve received zero information on how or where to report violence in the workplace. This gives employers a clear opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to employee safety and well-being and to strengthen their preventive strategy against violence in the workplace.

Other Possible Solutions: Leveraging Employee Feedback and other Key Metrics

In addition to training, research continuously shows that a psychologically and physically safe workplace is one that is continually and effectively monitored for potential problems or risk of problems. Especially when it comes to something as serious as sexual violence, employers should strive to collect as much employee feedback as possible—as often as possible—to ensure that everyone feels safe, and that no toxic behaviors are slipping under the radar.

To do this, employers can collaborate with expert consultants on questionnaires and assessments that provide employees with a secure and confidential opportunity to disclose any complaints or concerns that they might have regarding their peers’ behaviors and their personal safety. Also useful to that effect are compliance lines that allow employees to speak to a third party to raise ethical concerns they may have about their workplace.

At the end of the day, sexual violence is not an overnight fix. Especially as it continues to go unnoticed or unreported throughout workplaces across the country, it is going to take a real national reckoning just to even begin to redress some of its most underlying causes. Nevertheless, by acknowledging it, talking about it, and informing others about it in the workplace, employers can still take a significant and needed first step toward undoing such behaviors’ hold over workplace culture.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

This content is intended for general information only. It does not provide specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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