After four years of verbal abuse and three incidents of sexual harassment from my immediate supervisor, I have become so cynical with men that I no longer enjoy my work. Most men quite naturally treat women without respect and as second-class citizens without even being aware of it.

Like this young woman engineer, many women in the workplace experience sexual harassment. Some forms of harassment are subtle; some are blatant. Some people who harass do so unintentionally; others are quite aware of the impact of their behaviour. Some forms of harassment may appear harmless, but can be hurtful or insulting to women.

I've been told after a meeting that I had the nicest legs there.

One woman engineer found the environment good at head office, but not in the plant.

At the refinery, I've heard dirty jokes when I'm the only woman in the meeting. [I've experienced] patronising behaviour from an old man who was showing me the pump cooling water jackets. I wanted to feel the temperature of the water. First he told me not to put my hand under the water [because] it was too dirty for a girl. When I felt the water temperature, and said it was warm, he said, 'You're probably used to hot water from doing dishes.'

Harassment can be something as simple as a poster or calendar on a wall. One woman engineer came in contact with a man who didn't take her seriously.

Looking around his office, I saw pornography on the wall. I felt this was an open expression of his attitude towards women. He refused my polite request to take it down. When I complained to management, they were swift to act. The pornography came down immediately.

To her surprise, her colleagues had not been aware that the work environment was uncomfortable for her.

Some men who were supportive of my cause commented that they had simply never noticed pornography which hung in various offices and field locations. They admitted there were whole departments where women would probably be uncomfortable working.

Some kinds of discrimination are so common in the non-traditional workplace that many women don't even notice them, or if they do, they just get on with their work.

Since 92 percent of [the company's workforce] is men, obviously women must try hard to fit into the male-dominant workplace. To maintain good working relationships with colleagues, we may have to overlook behaviour or situations, which are mildly offensive or make us feel out of place.

In many cases, harassment has more to do with abuse of power than sex, and tends to increase as women aspire to more status and responsibility. The harassment intimidates women and keeps them "in their place." One woman engineer had difficulty as a supervisor of men.

I think this was because the men there did not mind working with a woman providing she was in a supporting role, i.e., a clerk or a secretary. Some would even accept a female co-worker. I think most of the men there did not like to work for a woman boss because it challenged their egos.

It is encouraging that many Canadian companies have in place or are planning to institute sexual harassment policies and supervisory training about sexual harassment issues (Institut Hudson Institute of Canada, 1991).

[Harassment is] objectionable conduct that may have the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile >or offensive work environment, interfering with an individual's work performance, adversely affecting an individual's employment relationship and/or denying an individual dignity and respect. (Esso Imperial Oil).

Education programs

Employers should institute ongoing and compulsory awareness programs that explain harassment and its various forms: sexual harassment, racial or ethnic harassment, or unwanted actions, derogatory comments or displays of materials that might be offensive. Such programs should provide specific guidance and training in effective methods of dealing with workplace harassment, and ensures all employees accept responsibility to identify harassment and enforce company policies. To be effective, harassment policies need the complete and public commitment and support of senior corporate management; policies must also be explained. Companies that do not have the expertise within their organisations to deliver sensitivity and awareness programs should hire experts in the field.

Harassment must be clearly defined because many individuals are not aware they are being offensive and many women accept mild harassment as part of the working environment.

Sexual harassment is a very real threat, mainly because complaints about it still label a woman as a trouble maker and a 'woman's libber.'

Awareness programs also need to teach employees how to handle harassment constructively so that a better working environment is created. One woman engineer who experienced harassment gave some advice.

It is important to handle these situations swiftly and personally to maintain a sense of self-strength and the respect of co-workers. Never has it been necessary to approach senior management with any such difficulty. But I am confident that I would have their support if needed.

Protection for complainants

Employers must institute procedures to ensure victims of harassment can make complaints without reprisal. It is essential that management and employees understand and ensure that using harassment complaint procedures is risk-free. That means anyone who has been harassed can make a complaint without jeopardizing career progression or becoming a victim of backlash or blacklisting.

It is also essential that employers detail action to be taken against the person who has committed harassment. Managers and supervisors must be responsible for ensuring that effective corrective action is taken, up to and including dismissal. Such action should include education to change the behaviour of the person who has harassed. Moving the victim or the harasser to another department or section of the company will not solve the problem.

It is also important that employees understand and accept their responsibility for identifying harassment and acting on it. One male engineer recounted how his company lost a promising woman candidate because the manager held "traditional" views.

Specifically I recall the statement that she might get pregnant and leave. My recommendation here is for engineers to be on the lookout for such behaviour and to remind the person in charge of what is wrong as early as possible (Gary Elfstrom, P.Eng., DSMA International Inc., Ontario Forum).

Harassment policies should also address discrimination and harassment from salespersons or industrial clients who are not accustomed to working with women engineers. Some women engineers who told us they had not experienced discrimination in their workplaces reported having difficulty with outside clients, contractors or on site.

Clients who are in their middle to late years are apprehensive and need convincing when hearing a woman is selected to lead a project. It is still necessary with some customers and staff to counter comment 'Let's try it--if she doesn't work out, we'll make a change.' Once on-site though, these male customers become the biggest fans of the woman project person (J. Larry MacDonald, P.Eng., and M.J. MacDonald, Black and McDonald Limited, Atlantic Region Forum).

Harassment policies that are explained and enforced will ensure women receive respect and can work effectively in traditionally male environments.


22. The CCWE recommends that employers of engineers initiate, update, promote and enforce policies to eradicate harassment in the workplace.

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