An advertising campaign for The Shift Project, which offers four hours of free legal advice or information to anyone who has experienced sexual harassment at a Saskatchewan workplace, was met with a troubling response, says Legal Program Coordinator for the Public Legal Education Association (PLEA), Hilary J. Peterson.
“Sure, everyone is entitled to an opinion – but whether sexual harassment has taken place in the workplace isn’t a matter of public opinion. Every person has the right to a work environment free of sexual harassment. This shouldn’t attract polarizing responses, but it has,” said Peterson.
The project’s online advertising campaign was designed to address the insecurities that victims of sexual harassment feel, to validate their experiences and encourage them to seek help that is made available by PLEA. While some commenters acknowledged the issue as important, other comments ranged from flippant jokes to aggressive denial, according to Peterson.
“We like to think we’ve come a long way [with workplace sexual harassment]. But this sort of dialogue really highlights the root of the problem,” Peterson said. “So many people don’t take workplace sexual harassment seriously. They either get defensive, turn it into a joke, or deny it’s even an issue. Those kinds of attitudes can make it really difficult for a victim of sexual harassment at work to be comfortable seeking help.”
The campaign was originally targeted at both men and women, but the male portion of the campaign had to be suspended due to the overwhelming amount of offensive and inappropriate comments.
On the female targeted side of the campaign, comments have included everything from minimizing sexual harassment as oversensitivity to deflecting the conversation to other topics like vaccinations, homelessness and even swearing.
“It’s almost as if some people just don’t want to talk about sexual harassment. They’ll change the conversation to almost anything but,” said Peterson. “It’s no wonder it can be so difficult for people who’ve been harassed at work to feel validated in their experiences and confident in accessing available support.”
While the social media response wasn’t ideal, Peterson said it has provided a valuable window into the issue and serves to underline the need for programs like The Shift Project.
Reducing sexual harassment in the workplace first requires defining sexual harassment and identifying when it occurs. Only then can tools and strategies be created to prevent and address it to effectively provide support for those who’ve experienced it, according to the release.
Based on the response campaign, there is still substantial work to be done, said Peterson.
“Educating the public on the realities of workplace sexual harassment isn’t easy, especially with so many opinions and perspectives at play. But the reality is that it’s far more common and widespread than we think,” said Peterson. “And attitudes that ‘people are too sensitive’ or that ‘it’s not a problem’ only make it harder for anyone who’s experienced [sexual harassment] to report it or seek the help they need.”
Since the launch of The Shift Project in Dec. 2020, a total of 12 applicants have provided that they live in a northern Saskatchewan community, according to Peterson.
The Shift Project offers and is available to individuals of any age and gender, regardless of income or how long ago the incident occurred. Anyone who has experienced or believes they may have experienced sexual harassment in a Saskatchewan workplace can visit shift.plea.org to get connected with a lawyer.