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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in the Workplace

Working together to create safer workplaces and communities

Misha Dhillon and Ninu Kang

Reprinted from the "Workplace Bullying and Harassment" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 15 (4), pp. 30-33

Woman in headscarf

Everyone deserves a workplace safe from violence and harassment. However, gender-based violence and harassment are common in Canada and often happen within the workplace or, when they happen outside the workplace, have workplace impacts.

Gender-based violence or harassment is “committed against someone based on their gender identity, gender expression or perceived gender,”1 and most often targets women, transgender people and gender non-conforming or non-binary people. Rates of violence and abuse are also higher for people who experience social marginalization (such as, for example, Indigenous people, immigrants and refugees and people with disabilities).

Within the workplace, employees may experience gender-based violence or harassment from a co-worker, supervisor or employer. It is frequently a pattern of behaviours, and often the person being violent or abusive is someone in a position of authority. Half of Canadian women report having experienced workplace sexual harassment, and almost one-third report having experienced “non-consensual sexual touching” (a type of sexual assault) in the workplace.2

Gender-based violence or harassment that takes place outside the workplace can also have a negative impact on the workplace. For example, intimate partner violence, which is often thought of as taking place at home, can affect the work environment. When someone who experiences intimate partner violence at home comes to work, the intimate partner violence often comes with them; in rare circumstances, it can be a safety risk for others in the workplace.

The workplace impacts of gender-based violence and harassment are significant, affecting not only the individuals involved, but the workplace community and the organization as a whole. Everyone in the workplace can play a role in preventing and responding to gender-based violence and harassment, and there are many benefits to effectively addressing these issues in the workplace.

Workplace impacts of violence and trauma

Almost 90% of women in Canada use strategies to avoid unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, including avoiding specific people and altering the way that they dress.2 The workplace impacts of trauma caused by gender-based violence can include social isolation, negative physical and mental health, absences or tardiness, work interruptions, decreased productivity and concerns about job security. A quarter of sexual assault survivors have difficulty carrying out everyday activities, including work.3

Looking at intimate partner violence, 54% of survivors said the violence continued at work (for example, through abusive phone calls or criminal harassment).4 Almost half of abusive partners also said that issues related to their violence negatively impacted their job performance due to distraction, sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression or needing to take time away from work.5

Gender-based violence and harassment also impact colleagues of those directly involved, whether they witness the violence or are affected by the aftermath. More than one-third of survivors of intimate partner violence say their co-workers were impacted, often due to stress or concern about the survivor experiencing violence.4

Gender-based violence and harassment have impacts on the workplace more generally, through compromising workplace safety, reducing productivity and engagement among staff, increasing absenteeism and employee turnover, damaging workplace culture and creating potential liability for harm caused. There are also significant direct and indirect financial implications: each year, Canadian employers lose an estimated $18.4 million due to sexual violence6 and $77.9 million due to intimate partner violence.7 Direct losses for employers include administrative costs, decreases in survivors’ productivity and impacts on survivors’ work attendance, such as increased tardiness and absences.6,7

Disclosing and reporting violence

For employees who have experienced gender-based violence or harassment, telling someone what happened (also called “disclosing”) is an important step—and often the hardest—in dealing with the issue. Someone may choose to disclose because they need emotional support, access to services or workplace accommodations (for example, time off to see a doctor, counsellor, the police or a lawyer). They may also choose to make an official report to their employer or to authorities such as the police.

An official report will usually lead to a formal process; within the workplace, this may include an investigation. Disclosing to a friend, family member or co-worker can help support the employee on their path to healing, but this does not necessarily mean that the employee is ready to report the incident formally—either to their employer or to the police.

There are many reasons why people experiencing gender-based violence or harassment may not want to disclose or report. Within the workplace, this may be because they work closely with the person who harmed them or they have concerns about confidentiality, career impacts, colleagues’ perceptions or workplace gossip. They may also be uncertain of the nature or adequacy of the workplace response.

Marginalized groups often experience additional barriers to disclosing or reporting and to accessing relevant supports. They may have concerns about their legal status or may lack awareness of their legal rights. There may be language barriers and an absence of culturally safe resources. Discrimination is also embedded in systems that respond to violence and harassment. For example, there may be assumptions that intimate partner violence does not happen in same-gender relationships (heterosexism) or that a person with a disability is unlikely to experience sexual violence (ableism).

How individuals can respond to a disclosure

Relatively few survivors choose to make a formal report. Looking at all gender-based violence in Canada (whether experienced inside or outside of the workplace), we know that survivors report to police in only 30% of intimate partner violence cases8 and in only 5% of sexual assault cases.3 Within the workplace, 72% of women who experience sexual harassment and 73% of women who experience sexual assault did not report the incident to their workplace.2

In a workplace environment, someone who has experienced gender-based violence or harassment is more likely to disclose to someone they work with. Comprehensive data on disclosures of sexual violence within the workplace are not available, but we do know that 46% of women have warned others about people they know who have made “unwanted sexual advances;”2 this indicates that survivors are often sharing experiences of workplace sexual harassment and assault with their co-workers. For survivors of intimate partner violence, 43% had discussed the violence with someone at work; for those who did tell someone in the workplace, most (82%) disclosed to a co-worker and many (45%) disclosed to a supervisor or manager.4

If someone discloses to you, your role is to support them through the process of disclosing and help the survivor access any additional supports they need, including the option to report to the workplace. It is important to respond in a way that is appropriate and recognizes the impacts of violence:

  • Listen actively. Let the survivor tell you as much or as little as they want, at their own pace, without interrupting. Mirror the language they use and do not ask for unnecessary details. Avoid overreacting to what they tell you; keep the focus on them
  • Believe what they are sharing with you, and show them that you believe them. Your role at this time is not to determine exactly what happened. Reassure them that the incident was not their fault, and help them understand that what they are feeling is valid and normal for someone who has experienced gender-based violence
  • Support them through discussing options for next steps, including accessing (workplace and community-based) resources, and any workplace accommodations they may need. Giving them the space to talk through their options and make decisions about what to do next can help them regain a sense of control

How workplaces can respond to disclosures and reports

In British Columbia, employers have an ethical and legal responsibility to address gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. Further, addressing gender-based violence and harassment can benefit workplaces by improving employees’ health and well-being, minimizing impacts of violence on employees’ work, and reducing employee turnover and associated recruitment and training costs.9

Workplaces should respond to gender-based violence and harassment in a way that is:

  • Trauma-informed, recognizing that violence can be traumatic, often “temporarily overwhelm[ing] the individual’s internal responses,” in addition to having long-lasting effects.10 For example, a trauma-informed response recognizes that memory of the incident may be impacted by trauma, and a survivor’s lack of clear or chronological memory does not mean that the violence did not happen
  • Survivor-centred, prioritizing the needs and preferences of the person who has been harmed. One aspect of a survivor-centred approach is, wherever possible, enabling the survivor to make decisions about how to move forward—including whom information about the incident is shared with, how the incident is dealt with and what workplace accommodations might be needed
  • Culturally safe, meaning appropriate for diverse cultures. This approach refers in particular to Indigenous cultures. For example, a culturally safe approach understands that colonial violence across generations may impact how an Indigenous survivor experiences a recent incident of violence or abuse

All workplaces should have policy and procedures in place to respond to incidents of gender-based violence and harassment. These should be supported by training, education and resources that help employers and employees recognize signs of gender-based violence, respond appropriately to disclosures and reports and identify appropriate resources for referrals.
When our workplaces develop effective approaches for preventing and responding to gender-based violence and harassment, these behaviours become less tolerated and people who are harmed feel more supported in disclosing and reporting. In this way, we can work together to create safer workplaces and communities.

About the author

Misha is the Research & Projects Coordinator at the Ending Violence Association of BC (EVA BC). She earned a master’s degree in sociology from UBC and, in her role at EVA BC, contributes her expertise to projects and initiatives aimed at preventing and improving responses to gender-based violence

Ninu is the Director of Communications at MOSAIC, with an academic background in economics and counselling psychology. She has over 25 years of program development, management and leadership experience at MOSAIC. Her work includes sharing her knowledge of intersectional approaches to addressing and preventing gender-based violence, focusing on migrant communities

  1. Status of Women Canada. (2018). About gender-based violence.

  2. Angus Reid. (2018). #Metoo: Moment or movement?

  3. Conroy, S. & Cotter, A. (2017). Self-reported sexual assault in Canada, 2014. Statistics Canada.

  4. Wathen, C.N., MacGregor, J.C.D. & MacQuarrie, B.J., with the Canadian Labour Congress. (2014). Can work be safe, when home isn’t? Initial findings of a pan-Canadian survey on domestic violence and the workplace. London, ON: Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children.

  5. Scott, K.L., Lim, D.B., Kelly, T., Holmes, M., MacQuarrie, B.J., Wathen, C. & MacGregor, J.C.D. (2017). Domestic violence at the workplace: Investigating the impact of domestic violence perpetration on workers and workplaces. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto.

  6. Hoddenbagh, J., Zhang, T. & McDonald, S. (2014). An estimation of the economic impact of violent victimization in Canada, 2009. Research and Statistics Division, Department of Justice Government of Canada.

  7. Zhang, T., Hoddenbagh, J., McDonald, S. & Scrim, K. (2012). An estimation of the economic impact of spousal violence in Canada, 2009. Ottawa, ON: Department of Justice Canada, Research and Statistics Division.

  8. Burczycka, M. (2016). Trends in self-reported spousal violence in Canada, 2014. Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile. Statistics Canada, 2014.

  9. Wang, S.Z. & Karpinski, E.A. (2016). Psychological health in the workplace.

  10. Briere, J.N. & Scott, C. (2015). Principles of trauma therapy: A guide to symptoms, evaluation, and treatment (Second Ed.) (p. 10). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

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