Canada: Lessons Learned From #MeToo

Last Updated: October 3 2018
Article by Twila Reid


On October 5, 2017 the New York Times published an article detailing serious sexual harassment allegations involving Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Three days later the board of directors of The Weinstein Company terminated his employment. On October 15, 2017 actor Alyssa Milano wrote on Twitter: "if you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet". This followed the 2006 use of #MeToo by activist Tarana Burke. #MeToo has been posted or commented millions of times since. Time Magazine named "The Silence Breakers" the 2017 person of the year. Harvey Weinstein now has 93 accusers.

The crux of the #MeToo movement is not about sex but rather about the implicit system of power which exists in workplaces. As described by actor Ashley Judd "I am a 28 year old woman trying to make a living and a career. Harvey Weinstein is a 64 year old, world famous man and this is his company. The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10."

Many lessons have been learned from #MeToo. Inappropriate sexual comments and behavior are occurring everywhere (to female reporters experiencing people who are yelling "FHRITP", in advertising, at sporting events, etc.), and it is inevitable that they will continue to occur at workplaces and universities. This article specifically considers what universities can learn from #MeToo.


1. Underestimating sexual harassment: Canadian executives still continue to drastically underestimate sexual harassment. 94% of Canadian executives believe that sexual harassment is not a problem at their company and 93% believe they have a corporate culture that prevents sexual harassment, according to a C-Suite Survey by the Gandalf Group. At the same time, 2017 Statistics Canada said that 30% of women had experienced workplace sexual harassment and the 2017 Insights West and Abacus Data survey found this number was closer to 50%. An Angus Reid poll released in February 2018 found that 4 in 5 women reported taking some kind of action to prevent or avoid sexual harassment - 52% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment at work and 28% of women said they had experienced non-consensual sexual touching, a broad category that included everything from touching to rape. Change begins at the top.

2. Policies are important: Review and update them at regular intervals. Audit policies for compliance. Collect data and report metrics (including any patterns). Weinstein had reached at least eight settlements with women over three decades. They were not investigated as once a settlement was reached the underlying complaint was withdrawn so the organization took the view that there was nothing left to investigate.

3. Processes are important: Investigations are designed to assign fault. Alternate dispute resolution, particularly restorative justice and transformative mediation, are designed to address harms and are more likely to result in complainant(s) and respondent(s) being able to work together productively. If an investigation is the default process, ensure the investigator is properly trained as there is a price to pay (both financial and reputational) for poor investigations.

4. Be proactive: Policies and processes are reactive and in order to manage reputational and brand risk, universities must also be proactive. Consider situational risk factors and what you can do to mitigate increased risk in relation to these factors: significant cultural and/ or language differences; significant age or gender imbalance; valuing customers/clients over worker wellbeing; isolated workplaces or encouraging consumption of intoxicating substances.

5. Importance of culture: Consider metrics to evaluate whether there is a "culture of silence" and/or toxicity vs. a culture of open communication and accountability. Consider having multiple channels for reporting, including anonymous whistleblower hotlines managed by third parties.

6. Understand bystander apathy: The social psychological phenomenon known as "bystander apathy" refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of offering help is inversely related to the number of bystanders.

In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. Ensure that bystander intervention forms a part of your policy and that you engage in regular bystander intervention training and campaigns.

7. Consent: Understand and provide training on what is meant by "consent". The issue of consent does not fully determine whether or not sexual harassment has occurred. There should be a positive obligation to disclose any consensual sexual relationship between people if there is a power imbalance.

8. Impact on mentoring: Since #MeToo, almost 50% of male managers report being uncomfortable participating in common work activities with women, including things like mentoring, working alone, socializing and travelling for work. Understand that #MeToo could actually result in a decline of vital mentoring and sponsoring opportunities for women and take steps to address this.

9. Understanding the demographics: Findings from an Angus Reid Institute poll released in February 2018 challenge the belief that young men (aged 18-34) are more in step with young women. Men aged 18-34 were significantly different (more permissive) in their views and attitudes (one question such as "is it okay to make a comment about a colleague's body") than all other demographics.

10. Accountability: Post #MeToo, no one is untouchable and the more senior the person the more likely it seems that the allegations will be publicized on social media. Publicly, the pendulum appears to have shifted from victim blaming to assuming the respondent is guilty without any due process. While it's important to have processes in place to support and believe complainants, decision-makers cannot give into social media pressure to rush to judgment. Due process takes time.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Twila Reid
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