Sexual Harassment in the Work(From Home)Place during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
If we think of sexual harassment as taking place only in physical workplaces, it is easy to believe that working remotely would reduce the rates of sexual harassment in the workplace. But this is not the case, and also reveals the complexity of sexual harassment during a global pandemic.
The Myth of the 'Great Equalizer'
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was often said that this pandemic effected everyone *equally* - regardless of class, race, gender, ability, status. When folks made these claims, they were often stating that anyone and everyone is susceptible to the COVID-19 virus, and that everyone was feeling the effects of lockdowns. Critics of this were quick to point out that rather than the great equalizer, the COVID-19 was the great 'exacerbator'. It exacerbated pre-existing inequalities in the healthcare system, showed massive disparities in the rates of infection in racialized and Indigenous communities, caused women to leave the workforce in record numbers, resulted in even larger economic disparities as people lost their jobs, and made vulnerable those in caring roles (nurses, personal support workers), service industries (restaurants), and retail industries (grocery stores). Researchers have also pointed to the fact that historically, global pandemics and disasters such as COVID-19 exacerbate rates of sexual harassment. Understanding that sexual harassment is pervasive in all workplaces means we must understand how sexual harassment has changed to adapt to the changing labour landscape in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sexual Harassment in the work from home place?
While the research is still emerging as the pandemic continues, researchers around the world have noted that sexual harassment hasn't gone away - it's merely changed. Quoted in an article discussing workplace sexual harassment, Deeba Syed, a senior legal officer at the UK charity Rights of Women stated, "Working from home meant abusers had to adapt”.
Consider your own 'work from home' staff team - how often do you all connect via phone? How many people have shared their numbers to stay connected with the team? How many Zoom calls do you have a week? Are people calling while sitting in their living room? Kitchen?
The point that researchers have made is that with the need to be connected virtually while working from home, the line between work and home has blurred. Things have, whether intentioned or not, become more personal in this remote context. One one end of the spectrum, this can result in the misinterpretation of virtual tone and making comments that would be more inappropriate if said face-to-face. On the other, more dangerous, hand, it can keep survivors connected with their alleged harasser. With the blurring of work and home, it can very much feel like the harassing behaviour is happening at all times and in the confines of their residence. Because this is happening virtually, there also may not be as many witnesses and could be happening without the employer having any idea.
In this remote work context, harassing behaviour can look like inappropriate and humiliating private messages, inappropriate and hostile jokes through text, and the sharing of private photos and videos, and denigrating memes. With the reliance on virtual meetings, it can also be the harasser 'forgetting' to invite their target 'accidentally' and repeatedly muting their target during online meetings.
It is important to remember that not everyone is working remotely. There are folks on the frontline of the pandemic - nurses and care providers, those in grocery stores, and (pre-lockdown) those in the service industry. Sexual harassment happened in these spaces prior to the pandemic, and it has continued throughout. What has changed in these particular workplaces is the pressures of the job and financial insecurity that may result in under-reporting by survivors.
Under-reporting during the COVID-19 Pandemic
According to Ending Violence Association of BC, there are several reasons why survivors may not be reporting sexual harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic:
Under-staffed or unavailable HR department; not knowing who to report to
Lack of support from peers and increased isolation
Believing that virtual sexual harassment is not as serious as sexual harassment that occurs 'in-person'
Fear of retaliation and job insecurity
Lack of clarity of what can be considered sexual harassment when working remotely
What can employers do?
For employers with employees working remotely, it might be worth it to have a refresher with your team on your sexual harassment program and policy, as well as adapting this to the remote context. Perhaps you will need to review your reporting process, or clarify to staff what virtual sexual harassment looks like.
For employers whose employees are still working in physical spaces, pay attention to the well-being of your staff during these challenging times, and review your sexual harassment program and policy. Reassure your staff that they can report free of retaliation or reprisal. With the new challenges of the pandemic both at work and outside of it, it's more important than ever to foster a positive workplace environment.
If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual harassment at work, either remotely or in a physical workplace, you have the right to report this to your employer, and they have an obligation to investigate any and all allegations of sexual harassment. Remember to document instances of sexual harassment and make note of the date, time, details of the event, and potential witnesses. Community Legal Assistance Sarnia is offering free legal advice to survivors of sexual harassment - even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Contact us today.
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