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3. Sexual harassment in employment

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While unequal power relationships exist in many sectors of society, they tend to appear the most in the workplace, where hierarchies are common. Both women and men may experience sexual harassment in employment, but women tend to be more vulnerable to harassment by men, because relative to men, more women hold lower-paying, lower-authority and lower-status jobs. At the same time, even women in positions of authority are not free from sexual harassment or inappropriate gender-related behaviour.[100]

Example: A disgruntled employee spreads rumours about his female director, stating that she is having an affair with the company president and that she is only successful because she “slept her way to the top.”

Whatever her position, portraying a female worker in a sexual way can diminish her status and image in the eyes of other employees. In at least one human rights decision, an employer was liable for the conduct of employees towards a supervisor.[101]

Spreading degrading sexual rumours and/or gossip about a female employee in an attempt to undermine her credibility and professionalism has been found to be sexual harassment.

Example: A respondent was held to have sexually harassed a woman after spreading false rumours that she “was spreading her legs for money.” [102]

Sexual harassment can also endanger the continued employment of the harassed person by negatively affecting work performance, undermining a sense of personal dignity, and in some cases causing physical and emotional illness. As previously mentioned, sexual harassment, if left unchecked, may escalate to violent behaviour. In some cases, this violence has resulted in sexual assault and murder. See the section entitled “Sexual harassment and violence” for more information.

The Code’s prohibition against sexual harassment in “employment” should be interpreted broadly to include the interview stage,[103] volunteer work, internships, etc.

Example: A 17-year-old female answered an ad to pose as a nude model. The photographer touched her sexually. The tribunal found that sexual harassment had occurred because the photographer was in a position to confer a benefit since he had outlined to her all the opportunities he could make available if she agreed to pose nude for him.[104]

As mentioned previously, section 7(3)(a) specifically sets out a person’s right to be free from an unwelcome sexual advance or solicitation in the workplace by a person who is in a position to grant or deny a benefit to the person.

Several sections of the Code prohibit sexual harassment “in the workplace.” Legal decisions have established that “in the workplace” applies not just to comment or conduct that occurs in the physical work environment during work hours, but rather, is broad enough to capture conduct that has work-related consequences, regardless of where it occurred.[105] See section 8.1, “Preventing and responding to sexual harassment: Employers” for more information.

While sexual harassment occurs across different occupations and industry sectors, research suggests that it is more common in certain types of employment. For example, sexual harassment complaints are high in traditionally male-dominated work environments, such as the military,[106] policing,[107] firefighting,[108] mining[109] and construction work.[110]

Women who perform jobs that are perceived to be subservient may also experience high rates of sexual harassment. For example, women who work in the health care profession have reported experiencing high rates of unwanted sexual touching and other forms of sexual harassment.[111] Massage therapy, waitressing and bartending are also occupations where women may be subjected to unwanted sexual behaviour.[112] Due to the stigma associated with the sex trade, sex trade workers may be subjected
to high rates of sexual harassment and other forms of differential treatment, including when dealing with the police.[113]

Women who work in relative isolation with few, if any, co-workers also appear to be highly vulnerable to sexual harassment.[114] For example, as mentioned earlier, research shows that live-in caregivers experience high rates of sexual harassment, exploitation and possible abuse.[115] Their vulnerability increases when they do not have full citizenship rights and depend on their employer for continued employment and to help them become Canadian citizens.[116]

Sexual harassment, including gender-based harassment, may be used in the workplace to reinforce traditional gender roles, and to repel challenges to masculine privilege and dominance.

Example: In an environment dominated by older police officers, a supervising police sergeant subjected a young female constable to sexual innuendo, sexual comments about her clothing when she was not in uniform, comments about the way that her body looked in her clothing, and a possessive interest in her whereabouts. When she did not return his interest and tried to avoid him, he reacted with anger and hostility. He began to over-scrutinize her work performance, accusing her of incompetence. Instead of addressing her with the title of “PC,” he referred to her in front of her colleagues as “Mrs.”[117]

A person does not have to explicitly refer to another person's gender or be explicitly sexual for the behaviour to violate the Code. For example, someone could target a female employee in his area, with the intent of discouraging or driving her away from continuing to work in a position, because she is a woman.[118]

Example: A supervisor may continuously interrupt a female employee during meetings or comment on her physical appearance in a way that sets her apart from male employees as not being a fully participating equal in the organization, or by making such statements as "women don't belong in the boardroom."

Example: A tribunal held that an employer sexually harassed an employee when he made repeated comments to her about her physical appearance, such as “Oh, don’t you look pretty today; Oh you shouldn’t wear that dress, it doesn’t do much for you; Those nylons don’t go with that skirt; Let’s run off and get married…”[119]

See the section entitled “Preventing and responding to sexual harassment” for information on employer and union responsibilities in this regard.

[100] See, for example, Ford v. Nipissing University, 2011, supra, note 10, in which a university professor was sexually harassed by a student.

[101] See Broadfield v. De Havilland/Boeing of Canada Ltd. (1993), 19 C.H.R.R. D/347 (Ont. Bd. Inq.).

[102] A. v. Quality Inn, (1993), supra, note 31. See also, Farris v. Staubach Ontario Inc., 2011, supra, note 23.  

[103] Morrison v. Motsewetsho (2003), supra, note 48.

[104] Daccash v. Richards, (1992), 20 C.H.R.R. D/208 (Ont. Bd. Inq.); reversed on other grounds (November 24, 1994), No. 361/92 (Ont. Div. Ct.).

[105] See Simpson v. Consumers’ Assn. of Canada (2001), 209 D.L.R. (4th) 214, (Ont. C.A.); leave to appeal refused [2002] S.C.C.A. No.83, 300 N.R. 199 (note), (S.C.C.); Tellier v. Bank of Montreal [1987] O.J. No. 2379 (Ont. Dist. Ct.); Cugliari v. Clubine (2006), supra, note 89; Hughes v. 1308581 Ontario (2009), supra, note 90 at para. 75. In Baylis-Flannery v. DeWilde (2003), supra, note 27, the tribunal found that an employer’s unexpected and uninvited visits to the claimant’s home constituted sexual advances within the meaning of section 7(3)(a) of the Human Rights Code. The tribunal stated that “While these incidents took place at her home, they stemmed directly from her workplace relationship with the respondent…” (para. 142) See also, Taylor-Baptiste v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, 2012 HRTO 1393 at para. 25 (CanLII), (reconsideration request denied in 2013 HRTO 180); and S.S. v. Taylor, 2012, supra, note 13 at paras 53-54.

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

[107] Susan Harwood, “The Hidden ‘Extras” for Women in Policing: Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Workplace Bullying,” (2009) available online at: (Retrieved: April 22 2013), and Chuvalo v. Toronto Police Services Board (2010), supra, note 5.

[108] Dave Baigent, “Fitting In: The Conflation of Firefighting, Male Domination, and Harassment,” in In the Company of Men: Male Dominance and Sexual Harassment,” supra, note 6 at 45-64.

[109] 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.

[110] 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,” ibid. at 258-262.

[111] Health Canada, Nursing Education and Violence Prevention, Detection and Intervention, (2002) available online at: (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)

[112] Lisa C. Huebner, “It is Part of the Job: Waitresses and Nurses Define Sexual Harassment,” (Fall 2008), Sociological Viewpoints, 75.

[113] Melissa Farley, (ed). Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress. (2004) (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press).

[114] See, for example, SH v. M […] Paintingsupra, note 34.

[115] 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.

[116] Live-in caregivers are people who are qualified to provide care for children, elderly persons or persons with disabilities in private homes without supervision. Under the rules of Canada’s Live-in Caregiver Program, caregivers must live in the private home of their employer for at least two years
as a condition of their stay in Canada. These conditions make women highly vulnerable to harassment and/or abuse, and make it very hard for a woman who experiences negative treatment to leave or to seek help. On April 1, 2011, the federal government implemented new rules to better protect live-in caregivers from potential abuse and exploitation. Under the new rules, employers who have been found to have violated worker rights may be refused authorization to hire a foreign worker. The new rules also provide for the emergency processing of new work permits for caregivers already in Canada who face abuse, intimidation or threats in their current jobs. See press release, available online at, and backgrounder, available online at (Retrieved: April 22, 2013).

[117] See Chuvalo v. Toronto Police Services Board (2010), supra, note 5, in which the tribunal held that the respondent breached the applicant’s rights under sub-section 7(3)(b) and section 5 of the Code. The respondent should have known that his advances would be unwelcome and his later hostility when she did not return that interest was reprisal.

[118] Shaw v. Levac (1990), supra, note 17.

[119] Garrow v. Vanton, (1992), 18 C.H.R.R. D/148 (B.C.C.H.R.), application for judicial review dismissed 21 C.H.R.R. D/492, 25 Admin. L.R. (2d) 253, sub nom. Vanton v. British Columbia (Council of Human Rights) (B.C.S.C.)


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