TORONTO — Maria Soklis remembers feeling ostracized by her co-workers early in her career for speaking up about “aggressive” sexual harassment — until more allegations by others involving the same person later came to light.
She complained to her employer (which she did not want to name), who handled it in an “exemplary fashion” and terminated her harasser swiftly.
Still, her harasser was well-liked and she felt shunned by her colleagues.
“This type of behaviour typically doesn’t happen on a one off. So, naturally, there was further information about other incidents… which helped make what I did more credible.”
Soklis, now the president of Cox Automotive, has risen to the top ranks but she believes a fear of career consequences continues to deter people from speaking publicly.
Allegations of inappropriate behaviour have recently been levelled against powerful Canadian figures in a broad range of industries including politics, media, theatre, sports and entertainment — but corporate Canada has been noticeably absent from the public reckoning.
Silence on this issue is not indicative of the lack of a problem, and lawyers say, the Me Too movement is quietly making its mark in corporate Canada.
A recent survey by public relations firm Navigator found nearly 40 per cent of Canadians polled say there is some or a lot of sexual harassment in their workplace, while a February poll of Human Resources Professionals Association members found that 17 per cent of respondents reported having witnessed sexual harassment or assault of an employee at work.
A confluence of factors keeps sexual misconduct stories from spilling out of Canada’s corporate offices, according to experts and lawyers that spoke with The Canadian Press.
For one, a lack of women at the top of the corporate ladder means victims may feel they lack powerful allies, discouraging them from speaking out.
Women hold just eight per cent of top-earning roles at Canada’s large, influential companies listed on the TSX 60 index, according to a Canadian Press analysis. None of Canada’s TSX 60 companies were headed by a woman and two-thirds did not include a single woman among top earners during their latest fiscal year.
Those who do speak out run the risk of being viewed as a troublemaker within Canada’s tight-knit corporate sphere, and potentially having their career aspirations scuttled.
Many sexual misconduct allegations in large corporations are often settled in-house and fall under strict non-disclosure agreements, which effectively keep the news from getting out, according to experts that spoke with The Canadian Press.
And for women that decide to make their case public and go the legal route, justice can be slow-moving.
During a holiday party for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Diane Vivares’ boss allegedly asked her to go somewhere private with him, and when she responded “no” he “proceeded to shove his hand down the inside of her skirt,” according to court documents.
Vivares’s allegations date back to 2007. She was terminated from the bank in 2015 and in 2016 filed a $1-million sexual harassment and sexual assault lawsuit, which is still before the courts.
CIBC and the plaintiff Kevin Carter have denied Vivares’s claims, which also include allegations of an explicit note from another co-worker about sexual intercourse in the boardroom and a junior trader showing her a photograph of a vagina. Vivares declined to comment through her lawyer, as the case is still before the Ontario Superior Court.
A CIBC spokesperson said the bank is unable to comment on the specifics of the case, as it is still before the court, but “no form of harassment, discrimination, bullying or any other kind of violence in the workplace will be tolerated.”
Sexual misconduct in Canadian workplaces is nothing new, but a seismic shift in society’s view of such behaviour is underway and organizations are now facing mounting pressure to hold predatory employees to account.
It’s been nearly a year since the Me Too movement was born, when collective anger at allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein spurred more women to speak out about their own experiences and call for change.
And while corporate Canada appears to be immune to such public shaming, Me Too has resulted in movement behind the scenes, according to several employment lawyers and investigators.
A surge of sexual harassment investigations at corporations across the country is underway as women are quietly stepping forward with their stories and companies increasingly take a proactive stance to deal with allegations head on.
One-in-five Human Resources Professionals Association members polled in a February survey reported an increase in the number of complaints they have received about harassment.
Employment lawyer Jennifer Mathers McHenry has seen more sexual misconduct or harassment cases in six months than she has in her entire career. But most civil litigation usually ends up in some sort of confidentiality agreement, said McHenry, who is with the Toronto firm Teplitsky Colson.
“It keeps this in dark corners, and a light should be shone,” she said.
“But at the same time, it is not only the accused and the institutions that benefit from the confidentiality agreement, to some degree it can be the claimants themselves.”
Keeping these issues quiet not only reduces potential stigma when seeking new employment, but the promise of confidentiality can help motivate the accused to settle and avoid a years-long court process, lawyers say.
Another element keeping allegations out of the public domain is that many corporations have established avenues such as hotlines or human resources departments and other protocols for employees to raise concerns, said employment lawyer and workplace investigator Gillian Shearer.
As a result, the average banker, lawyer or financial professional is less likely to go public with their allegations. Shearer’s firm too has seen an increase in cases and a higher demand for workplace investigations, but often dealt with confidentially, she said.
“Regardless of how much awareness there will be out there, if you’re a senior female leader at an investment organization and you want to raise a complaint, there’s still a concern about stigma and what it would do to your career.”
Armina Ligaya, The Canadian Press