Sexual harassment & sex discrimination at work

Sexualized dress codes are one example of the many types of sex discrimination that working women face. Sexual harassment is a specific form of sex discrimination. A 2014 survey indicates that three-in-ten Canadians experience sexual harassment at work.[1]   

In its 2013 Policy on preventing sexual and gender-based harassment, the OHRC recognized the severe impacts of sexual harassment on working women and trans people. It can reduce employees’ morale, decrease productivity and contribute to physical and emotional effects such as anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. The United Nations’ Declaration of the Elimination of Violence Against Women states that sexual harassment is a form of violence against women. Sexual harassment and violence reflect negative attitudes about girls and women. Inappropriate sexual behaviour (sexual jokes, innuendo and unwanted gestures of “affection”) often develops over time and, if left unchecked, may progress to more serious forms.[2] Physical or sexual assault may be the culmination of ongoing acts of harassment.    

Gender-based harassment is a specific type of sexual harassment defined as “any behaviour that polices and reinforces traditional heterosexual gender norms.”[3] It is commonly used in an attempt to re-establish gender norms – that is, polarized masculinity and femininity – by putting a person who is perceived to be “deviant” back in their “place.”[4]

In recent months, high profile reports of sexual harassment, sexual violence and other forms of sex discrimination have appeared in the media; some reflect allegations of widespread sexual harassment in certain Canadian public institutions. This has led to greater dialogue around the impacts of sexual harassment and other discriminatory barriers women face at work. Although sexual harassment cuts across all work sectors, sexual harassment claims are particularly high in traditionally male-dominated industries (such as policing[5], firefighting,[6] mining[7], the military[8], and construction work[9]). Women are also more likely to experience sexual harassment at work when they are seen as subservient (e.g. health care workers[10] or massage therapists), or are isolated from other co-workers, such as live-in domestic caregivers.[11]

Women are more likely than men to hold precarious employment,[12] such as low-wage and part-time jobs. Because of this, they may be more likely to be exposed to unwanted sexual advances and other forms of sexual harassment.[13] Relying on tips may also increase the likelihood of sexual harassment.[14] To attract customers and earn tips, female employees may be expected to put up with inappropriate sexual behaviour from customers.[15] These economic factors can also make it harder for employees to complain about the behaviour and get help. At the same time, even women in positions of authority are not free from sexual harassment or inappropriate gender-related behaviour.

Young women, racialized women, lesbian women, immigrant and migrant women, trans people and women with disabilities may also be more at risk for sexual and gender-based harassment. In a decision released in May 2015 (O.P.T. v. Presteve Foods, Ltd.[16]), the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario found that an employer subjected two female temporary foreign workers from Mexico to sexual harassment, sexual solicitation and advances that created a sexually poisoned environment. When one of the women tried to object, the company owner threatened to send her back to Mexico unless she submitted to his sexual solicitations and advances. Recognizing the severity of the harassment and their extreme vulnerability, the Tribunal ordered more than $150,000 in damages to one woman and $50,000 to the other.

Sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the restaurant industry are particularly prevalent and affect hosts, bartenders and servers,[17] most of whom are female.[18]  Many of these women are young and may be working in their first job. Over one-third (36.8%) of food and beverage servers in Ontario are women between the ages of 15 and 24.[19] Research indicates that in the restaurant industry, sex discrimination and sexual harassment happen so frequently that they are often seen as just “part of the job.”[20] Managers, customers and even staff may normalize the behaviour and minimize its effects. However, this discrimination is very harmful to women. Even though it may be a common occurrence, it is still against the law.

Restaurants that make hiring decisions based on sex, age, race, gender identity, ability, and creed (religion) to present a certain company “image” may be violating the Ontario Human Rights Code. Dress codes that require female staff to dress in short skirts, low-cut tops and high heels to attract customers may be discriminatory, and may also make women vulnerable to sexual harassment. [21] Employers that fail to prevent sexual harassment, or fail to respond when staff are subjected to unwanted comments or behaviour such as sexual remarks, requests for dates, or inappropriate touching, also contribute to a discriminatory work environment. Employers must make sure their workplaces are free of discrimination and harassment, or they may be liable for violating their employees’ human rights.

The OHRC’s policy position on gender-specific dress codes can be found here.


[1] Angus Reid Institute: Public Interest Research, “Three-in-ten Canadians say they’ve been sexually harassed at work, but very few have reported this to their employers” (2014), online: Angus Reid http://angusreid.org/sexual-harassment/ (retrieved March 2, 2016).

[2] In Cugliari v. Clubine, 2006 HRTO 7, at para.189 (CanLII), Dr. Sandy Welsh, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto, testified that “there is often an escalation in behaviour from initially grey behaviour into more directed comments and physical or sexual touching.”

[3] Elizabeth J. Meyer, “Gendered Harassment in Secondary Schools: Understanding Teachers’ (Non) Interventions,” Gender and Education, Vol. 20, No. 6, November 2008, 555 at 555.

[4] Jennifer L. Berdahl, “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 2007, Vol. 92, No. 2, 425-437 at 426.

[5] Susan Harwood, “The Hidden ‘Extras” for Women in Policing: Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Workplace Bullying,” (2009) available online at: www.acwap.com.au/journal/issue23.pdf (Retrieved: April 22 2013). For an example of sexual harassment in policing, see Chuvalo v. Toronto Police Services Board 2010 HRTO 2037 (CanLII); (HRTO) Reconsideration request denied  2011 HRTO 1291 (CanLII).

[6] Dave Baigent, “Fitting In: The Conflation of Firefighting, Male Domination, and Harassment,” in In the Company of Men: Male Dominance and Sexual Harassment,” James E. Gruber and Phoebe Morgan, eds. (Boston: Northeastern University Press), 2005 at 45-64.

[7] Kristen Yount, “Sexualization of Work Roles Among Men Miners: Structural and Gender-Based Origins of ‘Harazzment’” in In the Company of Men: Male Dominance and Sexual Harassment,” ibid. at 65-91.

[8] Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert, “A Missing Link: Institutional Homophobia and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military,” supra, note 6 at 215-242.

[9] Carrie N. Baker, “Blue-Collar Feminism: The Link Between Male Domination and Sexual Harassment,” in In the Company of Men: Male Dominance and Sexual Harassment,” supra note 6 at 258-262.

[10] Health Canada, Nursing Education and Violence Prevention, Detection and Intervention, (2002) available online at: http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2008/hc-sc/H72-21-185-2... (Retrieved: April 22, 2013); Jill Rafuse, “Sexual Harassment is a Significant Health Care Issue, Canadian Medical Association Committee Says,” (1993) Can Med Assoc J 1993 148 (10)

[11] Sandy Welsh, et al., “‘I’m Not Thinking of it as Harassment’: Understanding Harassment Across Race and Citizenship,” Gender & Society, Vol. 20 No. 1, February 2006, 87-107 at 100.

[12] Andrea M. Noack & Leah F. Vosko, Precarious jobs in Ontario: Mapping dimensions of labour market insecurity by workers’ social location and context (2011) Commissioned by the Law Commission of Ontario, available online at  http://www.lco-cdo.org/en/vulnerable-workers-call-for-papers-noack-vosko (Retrieved: February 25, 2016).

[13] Anthony D. LaMontagne, et al., “Unwanted sexual advances at work: Variations by employment arrangement in a sample of working Australians” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 2009 Vol.3, No.2 173-179; Kaitlyn Matulewicz, “Law and the Construction of Institutionalized Sexual Harassment in Restaurants”, Canadian Journal of Law and Society 2015, Vol.30 No.3, 401-419. 

[14] Matulewicz, ibid.

[15] Matulewicz, ibid.

[16]O.P.T. v. Presteve Foods Ltd., 2015 HRTO 675 (CanLII).

[17] Lisa C. Huebner, “It is Part of the Job: Waitresses and Nurses Define Sexual Harassment,” (Fall 2008), Sociological Viewpoints, 75. One U.S. survey of 688 current and former restaurant workers found that 60% of women and trans people and 46% of men reported that sexual harassment was an “uncomfortable aspect of work life.” The Restaurants Opportunities Centers United Forward Together, The glass floor: Sexual harassment in the restaurant industry (2014), online: ROC United http://rocunited.org/pr-the-glass-floor-report/  (Retrieved: February 29, 2016) at 2.   

[18] Data from the 2011 National Household Survey indicates that almost 75% of food and beverage servers, restaurant hosts and bartenders in Ontario are women. Statistics Canada, no date. 2011 National Household Survey: Data Tables. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-012-X2011033.Last modified January 7, 2016. Online: Statistics Canada http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/dp-pd/dt-td/Rp-eng.cfm?LANG=E&APATH=3&DETAIL=0&DIM=0&FL=A&FREE=0&GC=0&GID=0&GK=0&GRP=0&PID=105897&PRID=0&PTYPE=105277&S=0&SHOWALL=1&SUB=0&Temporal=2013&THEME=96&VID=0&VNAMEE=&VNAMEF (Retrieved: February 25, 2016).

[19]Ibid.

[20] The Restaurants Opportunities Centers United Forward Together, supra note 17; Matulewicz, supra note 13; Huebner, supra note 17.

[21]  Different forms of discrimination in the restaurant industry may be rooted in using women’s appearance to attract customers. The Restaurants Opportunities Centers United Forward Together, supra note 17. at 21,22,25; Matulewicz, supra note 13.

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