Three women share experiences of sexism and sexual harassment at work
By Sam Mathers, News Editor
If you tuned in to the Golden Globes last weekend, you probably noticed a lot more calls to action than tearful thank-you’s to God. You are probably hoping for an Oprah presidential run in 2020. You probably also heard a lot of people using the phrase, “time’s up.” What began as an outpouring of “me too’s” has turned into a full-on movement, after a group of women in Hollywood started the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund – which has , in less than a month, has raised over $16.5 million to provide subsidized legal services for people experiencing sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.
The defense fund and the Time’s Up movement was inspired by Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, a U.S. national farmworker women’s association. Back in November, the association wrote a letter of solidarity which both praised women in Hollywood for their bravery and also reminded them of their privileged platform, by saying: “We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen. We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country.”
If #MeToo showed us that sexual harassment and abuse is ubiquitous, Time’s Up reminded us that not everybody has the means to do something about it and not everybody has an audience that will necessarily listen. Sexism and sexual violence is not a Hollywood issue. It is a global issue; an issue woven into every industry in every place of the world. The Argus spoke to three women working in Thunder Bay from three different fields about their common experiences with sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Kateri Banning, the owner of a successful construction business in Thunder Bay, has experienced sexism in her field since attending trade school at Confederation College. As one of only two women in her class, her peers would often jokingly ask: “do you need help with that?” After working in the field for 15 years, Banning sums it up simply by saying, “I’m in a man’s world.” Being a woman in a male dominated field, she says “you’re always going to have a guy thinking you can’t do [the job] or a guy hitting on you.”
There seems to be a mentality that women don’t belong in the trade industry. Banning recalls being on a panel for the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada Convention – an international event for the mining industry, and hearing a man outside the auditorium doors remark: “women in mining – women should mind their own business.” It was in that moment, Banning remembers thinking: “I really hope you come through the doors and listen to us objectively.”
In the early years of her career, Banning would often consult with clients who would ask “if there was a lead carpenter, or who would actually be doing the work.” Banning now says, “I’m confident and strong enough where I’ve had my feelings hurt in the past, but I’ve given myself a reality check… you still have to respect yourself… sometimes you want to back down, but those are the times people have actually said to me ‘I’m glad you stood up for yourself.’”
As a business owner, Banning realizes she has the advantage of choosing who she wants to work with and be around: “I find if I don’t get the respect I feel that I deserve – and that doesn’t mean bow down to me, however you would talk to a man, that’s what I expect – I don’t have to work with you.” She acknowledges, however, that not everyone can be their own boss, and many women do not have a choice regarding who they work with. Now in her role as a mentor for women in trades, through organizations like Skills Canada and Skills Ontario, Banning gets asked the most common question: “is it harder because you’re a girl?”
Current labour shortages leave Ontario without skilled tradespeople in many areas, with projections suggesting the province will be in dire need of welders, heavy construction equipment crews, contractors and supervisors, electricians, and residential home builders, just to name a few. Banning wonders, “why can’t women fill those voids?”
She has noticed a change in the industry since first starting out, due in large part to government programs and organizations which encourage trades as a career choice. Banning has noticed a woman working on the crew across the street from her current project – a welcomed sight. She says: “women aren’t as scared to enter the field because they see other women in the field and that’s a huge change. The ratio of men to women, that’s the biggest change I see.”
A woman who prefers to remain anonymous, works as a server and bartender while studying at Lakehead University. She says she experiences sexism every single day: “with customers, especially working late in a bar, I do experience quite a bit of sexism in my job. It kind of depends on the night as [well as the]demographic – I do get the stereotypical big group of young guys coming in who make comments both to me and that I can hear as I’m walking away and as I’m serving…specifically on how much I’m worth [in] tips.”
It’s not just the groups of young, rowdy guys – older, successful men make comments too. Even more damaging than the immature and inappropriate comments are, she notes that “when you get dismissed as a woman and as a young woman because you’re not worth talking to. You are there to serve him – and I mean I am a server – but I still think that people deserve respect for what they’re doing.”
Across the service industry, there is an expectation for servers to brush it off; that the sexist and inappropriate comments come with the territory: “you take it and you smile and you have to be friendly because that’s the job, right?” As time passes, this often becomes easier. She says, “I’ve gotten more used to letting it roll off my back when [people] act like that, and in the moment, being more confident [and] saying: ‘can you not?’ I mean if I said that to everything, I would be saying it all day, but as a server, I do work off tips, that is my main source of income, so sometimes me standing up for myself is the difference between me making money and not making money.”
No part of her training included a discussion on how to deal with sexual harassment from customers, and she has never been made aware of a sexual harassment policy at any time during her employment. However, she feels supported by her co-workers, and has confidence in some of her managers taking action, including removing customers from the restaurant for inappropriate behaviour. She explains: “I am lucky enough to work at a place where I do feel really supported as a server, but I do know that that’s not always the case…I get along really well with the people in my workplace and for the most part, I think that my managers have my back in a lot of situations. I work with some very strong women who are also very wonderful and very supportive as well, so I think I’m really lucky in that sense.”
Jessica Ross, LU’s Pride Central Coordinator, provided The Argus with a personal experience reporting sexual harassment in a government job:
“We’ve all done it. Sexual Harassment Training. You know those long boring videos you have to sit through at the ancient computer in the back, watching the horrid acting, listening to the scenarios described through $2 foam headphones that needed to be replaced about five years ago. We’ve all seen Jane’s boss grope her butt in the copy room while he tells her she’s up for a promotion. Unfortunately, when some people see these videos, they assume that words and actions are only sexual harassment when they happen exactly like this.
I had the very unfortunate experience of working for a government, being blatantly sexually harassed, filing a formal complaint and having absolutely nothing come of it. The security officers walked around building as part of their job, so the rest of us saw quite a bit of them, often stopping for small chats and forming little friendships with staff in other departments. Good team building, right? There was this one security officer who had stopped to chat with me one day, I think we were talking about football. He was a younger guy, around my age and at the end of the conversation he asked if he could text me later. I agreed and exchanged numbers with him. Later that same evening, he began texting me, at first continuing our earlier conversation about who’s team was better (our teams were division rivals) but somewhere along the line, the conversation took on a different tone. He began dropping more and more innuendos and inappropriate one-liners.
It was no secret to him or anyone at work that I am gay and identify as a lesbian, which to most straight men, means they must rise to the challenge of trying to “turn you back.” All of this is mostly preamble, leading up to him telling a lie about me (that we had sex in my car), I denied it (because obviously), people believed me (shocking, right?) and he left me mostly alone after that. I never reported him or the conversation to human resources, assuming I had handled the problem on my own. In the months following the rumors he had started, it began to come out that he had done this to many other women across many other departments. Even when the other women had reported him to both his supervisor and to their own, he had only been “spoken to” about it and no disciplinary action had been taken. Chatting with the other women had caused me to be more cautious than before with this individual and I was keeping an eye out for anything that was strictly out of line.
About a year after the first incident, at Halloween time, I had come into work wearing my Marilyn Monroe costume. I encountered the guy in the staff lounge where he looked me up and down in that gross way that entitled guys do and commented something about really liking seeing me out of work clothes. A few weeks after this happened, there was a fundraiser allowing staff to pay money and wear jeans to work. As I was walking to the staff room, the guy was behind me and noted how much he liked my butt in the jeans I was wearing. And that was the last straw. I went to my supervisor to make a complaint. The supervisor knew immediately who I was talking about, and told me there had many complaints before, however there was not much they could do, as no one had ever filed a formal complaint with HR. I asked who I would have to speak to in order to file a formal complaint, to which I was told that it would be a long process, and did I really want to get into it because someone had paid me a compliment? Yes. I did. Because even if it went nowhere, at least it was on record that this person had complaints against them, so that the next time someone complained, there would be a pattern.
The HR people did an investigation. They interviewed me extensively. I told them in intricate detail everything that had happened, showed them text messages, and owned up to joking along with him to ease the tension I was feeling. They interviewed him as well. Even though he owned up to everything he had done and offered to make a formal apology, HR decided it was not sexual harassment. They called it inappropriate misconduct, gave him a one-day suspension and tried to offer me his formal apology. I refused the apology. It was, in my eyes, a huge failure by Human Resources. All the sexual harassment training in the world will not help if your company is unwilling to stand up to it or help you when you actually need it. He left the company shortly after that and I left too not long after him. Why give your time and energy to a place that cannot bring itself to stand up for ALL of its people? Why give your time and energy to a place that perpetuates behaviour that continues rape culture?”
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual harassment, assault or abuse, the Thunder Bay Sexual Abuse Centre offers free and confidential counselling and support. You can call their 24-hour hotline at (807)-344-4502.
If you need legal support, up to four hours of free legal advice can be accessed by visiting ontario.ca/legaladvice.