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The perpetuation of gender-based stereotypes is a form of sexual harassment

The second scenario discussed in last month’s blog post involved Morris and Everett—a potential sexual harassment incident. Everett is a real-life person who attended my training workshop at his workplace. The topic was respect for workplace human rights. Here’s a reprint of Everett’s story:

Morris and Everett

Morris has been Everett’s supervisor for over six years. Recently Morris had hired several administrative assistants and was giving the new recruits a workplace tour. The entourage stopped near the area where Everett was working and Morris introduced

“Everett is your go-to person, ladies, for advice on fashion, hair, make-up or anything else a girl needs to know these days.”

Everett smiled and said hello and didn’t let on that he was mortified by this introduction. He later shared his concerns with a co-worker who suggested Everett go and speak to Morris about how this incident made him feel.

Do you think Morris has discriminated against Everett on a prohibited ground under human rights legislation? Sexual harassment? Sexual orientation?

Everett may have a legitimate complaint under the Ontario Human Rights Code on the basis of sex discrimination. More specifically, his complaint may be described as gender-based stereotyping—a form of illegal sexual harassment.

A First Reference Talks reader, Karen, shared her thoughts with us. When Everett told me his story I, like Karen, felt that Morris was trying to be funny. However, as Karen points out, Morris failed in this attempt. In fact, says Karen, if she were one of the new recruits in this situation she would understand Morris to be saying, “’Everett is our resident fabulously fashionable gay person,’ perpetuating that stereotype.”

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) informs us that the perpetuation of gender-based stereotypes is a form of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not, according to the OHRC, limited to conduct or comment about sexual intent or interest. An example cited by the OHRC is a high school boy, more interested in the arts than sports, being called “fag” and “homo” by his school mates. There is no sexual interest here but negative treatment of the boy because he doesn’t fit heterosexist norms of what a boy should be.

This may explain why Everett was, in his words, “mortified” by the comments of his supervisor. In his mind his supervisor was pointing out that Everett does not conform to a stereotypical male role. Furthermore the supervisor was using this situation to be funny—at Everett’s expense That’s exactly what harassment is all about—having fun at someone else’s expense!!

Here’s another perspective on this story: What do you think of the sexual stereotyping in assuming that all the women on the tour would be interested in tips on fashion, hair and makeup? What message is this supervisor sending?  Is he saying that the women who work in this place are expected to be interested in these things? How would you feel if fashion, hair and makeup are not your priorities? Would you feel like you may not fit in?

It’s all about being aware that we are not all alike and encouraging an ongoing dialogue in order to more fully understand these concepts.

Andrew Lawson
Learn Don’t Litigate

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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