Pressure or panic? Why does sexual harassment go unreported?

Tanya van Biesen, of Catalyst, reveals why employers need to do more to help the downtrodden

Pressure or panic? Why does sexual harassment go unreported?
According to a report from the Gandalf Group, a large majority of Canadian male executives surveyed don’t believe that sexual harassment is a problem in the workplace.

The report interviewed 153 Canadian executives last year, 95% of which were male. When asked whether they thought sexual harassment was an issue in their organizations, 94% said that they didn’t believe it to be one.

But do these figures stem from a sense of naïveté surrounding the issue, or from cases going unreported?  We spoke to Tanya van Biesen, executive director of Catalyst Canada, who gave us her take on the eye-opening report.

“One begets the other,” she explained. “I think these cases are vastly under-reported.

“This study went to senior executives and even when things are reported they don’t tend to hit that high-level. The complaints could stop at HR – so the most senior executives may not be made aware of the cases that are occurring.”

The report found that one in three of those interviewed had witnessed or heard of specific sexual harassment cases – however, most agreed that these incidents go unreported.

“There was nothing in this report that was surprising to me,” added van Biesen. "I think that fundamental issue is that because these cases go unreported, there is a lack of awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment.”

This apparent lack of awareness is fostered by a culture of silence and fear of retribution – something which van Biesen believes needs to be eradicated quickly.

“There needs to be a formalised system in place whereby employees can come forward with complaints, as well as having a counter system in place which responds to and investigates those claims,” she told HRD Canada.

“All complaints need to be investigated. All employees need to understand the process, and there must be a non-retaliatory system and culture in place, should someone make a complaint – this is HR’s remit.”

And it’s not just female executives who should be fighting for diversity – organizations need men to take a starting lead too.

“Men need to be engaged as champions, sponsors and mentors of women,” she added, “not just their bosses. We need more women in leadership to balance out the imbalance of power which still exists today.

“Senior management need to be sensitive to the importance of all complaints being followed up. I think on a more informal basis, organisations desperately need to work on becoming more inclusive.

“We need to ensure that men are trained to work alongside women – which sounds crazy in this day an age – but we need to ensure that people understand it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure we have a zero-tolerance environment.”

How will you go about stamping out sexual harassment? Tell us in the comments.

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