In Hill Strategies Blog

Harassment and discrimination: Important aspects of the precarity of women in the arts

February 16, 202216 February 2022


Laurence D. Dubuc

(Ph.D candidate at the School of Industrial Relations of the University of Montreal, research agent at ARTENSO, and member of Arts Insights Canada’s Advisory Panel)

Women who work as artists and cultural workers encounter specific forms of precarity in the Canadian cultural sector. The report Status of Women in the Canadian Arts and Cultural Industries by Coles et al (2018) highlights the many ways in which this statement holds true. Based on a review and analysis of more than 250 sources published between 2010 and 2018, the study provides evidence of the persistence of gender-based income gaps in several arts sectors and the limited recognition and dissemination that women’s artistic achievements receive in comparison to their male peers.

This blog addresses another important aspect of gender discrimination in Canada’s cultural sector: workplace sexual harassment. The Canada Labour Code defines sexual harassment as “any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or that might, on reasonable grounds, be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion”. Although men can also be victims, workplace sexual harassment in the arts and culture particularly affects women as well as people who identify as transgender, non-binary, two-spirited, agender, or another gender minority.

According to Virginie Maloney, lawyer and director of operations at L’Aparté (a “front-line legal resource center for people who are experiencing or have experienced sexual and psychological harassment” in Quebec’s cultural community), specific dynamics in the arts and culture could contribute to the (re)production of a culture favourable to sexual misconduct, including atypical work schedules, the cult of personality, the use the body as a medium of artistic expression in several disciplines, and more. In the same article, she notes that the prevalence of self-employment is a factor in the vulnerability of artists and cultural workers to sexual harassment, which is often perceived and experienced by victims and witnesses as an abuse of power.

Mobilizing the cultural community

Since the waves of denunciations brought about by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in 2017, cultural sector organizations and government agencies responsible for culture have set up resources dedicated to fighting workplace harassment and discrimination.

In 2017, Canadian Actors’ Equity Association (hereafter referred to as Equity) launched a Not in OUR Space! campaign for the theatre community in response to the results of a 2015 survey regarding workplace issues faced by the union’s members as well as their needs in terms of support and guidance. The survey, with over 1,000 respondents, found that approximately 50% of women and 37% of men had experienced harassment at some point in their careers. Of these, 30% had experienced sexual harassment. In this context, the Not in OUR Space! campaign aims to (1) inform and educate Equity members about harassment, (2) encourage collaboration with arts organizations that employ Equity members, and (3) establish and formally frame a process for reporting workplace misconduct.

In 2018, the Cultural Human Resources Council (CHRC) launched the Respectful Workplaces in the Arts campaign. Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and Canadian Heritage, this campaign aims to ensure that cultural organizations are trained and adapt their practices to prevent and combat harassment.

Other initiatives focusing on training, awareness and reporting processes have also been launched in recent years, under the auspices of provincial governments, associations, or other institutions. For example, in 2017, 43 Quebec associations, cultural organizations, unions, and groups signed a declaration for a harassment-free work environment in the province’s cultural sector and developed a code of conduct to be posted in their respective workplaces. In 2018, the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec allocated $900,000 to fight sexual assault and harassment in the Quebec cultural sector.

Surprising survey findings related to workplace sexual harassment in the arts

Since the introduction of these measures, a few studies have looked at the situation of women in terms of sexual harassment in the arts. Their results are surprising.

The organization aftermetoo recently published the results of a Canada-wide study conducted by Hill Strategies on sexual harassment in the performing arts, film, and television. The results of the survey, which reached over 1,100 respondents from across Canada, indicate a high prevalence of sexual harassment in the performing arts. Ninety-two percent of respondents reported experiencing or observing sexual misconduct at some point during their arts careers, including unwelcome sexual teasing, jokes, comments, or questions (79%), unwelcome invasion of personal space (e.g., crowding, leaning over: 77%), unwelcome sexually suggestive looks or gestures (63%), sexual assault (i.e., sexual contact with a person without that person’s consent: 27%), and other troubling behaviours.

According to the study, the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment varies according to the respondents’ employment status. People working on a contract basis reported experiencing or observing sexual harassment at higher levels (95% for the self-employed and 93% for the employed) than those in permanent positions (87%). Interestingly, unionized workers reported experiencing or observing sexual harassment at slightly higher rates than non-unionized workers (94% compared to 89%). These results could be attributed to a number of factors. Union members may have access to more resources to help them identify the different faces of sexual misconduct. They may also have a greater sense of job security, which may make them more likely to report instances of sexual misconduct. To date, our knowledge of the effectiveness of anti-harassment campaigns implemented by trade unions in the cultural sector remains limited.

In October 2020, the Centre for Free Expression, affiliated with X University (currently known as Ryerson University), published the results of a study on the effectiveness of Equity’s Not in OUR Space! Campaign. The survey, which reached 871 Equity members who had at least one work engagement of two weeks or more during the previous two years, indicates that 17% of respondents had experienced harassment, including bullying, sexual harassment, and discrimination based on their identity during the previous two years. Less than 10% of respondents also reported having observed harassment during this period. Of the 136 incidents reported by these respondents, 26% were identified as forms of sexual harassment. Considering both the profile of respondents and the time period covered by the survey question, these figures indicate that sexual harassment remains an issue of concern in the theatre community.

While 97% of respondents said that they were aware of the Not in OUR Space! campaign, a significant proportion of respondents did not remember some key elements of Equity’s anti-harassment policy. For example, just 56% of respondents recalled the policy’s permitted and prohibited behaviours; 55% recalled the resolution procedures after reporting an incident; 36% recalled the possible fallout from reporting an incident; and 29% recalled the oversight procedures after reporting an incident. As the research team points out in its report, a lack of awareness of the consequences of non-compliance with the policy is a clear barrier to its effectiveness.

The challenges of reporting misconduct

Reporting misconduct, whether it is personal harassment, sexual harassment, bullying or identity-based discrimination, brings with it specific challenges in the arts and culture, where networks and reputation can drive careers. While the studies by aftermetoo (2021) and the Centre for Free Expression (2020) do not have the same purposes or populations, they both highlight a reluctance to speak out from people who have experienced or observed harassment, at least through current institutional channels. For a very pertinent reflection on the reasons that may lead victims to turn away from institutional channels to denounce aggressors, see the excellent French-language article by Édith Brunette published in the magazine Liberté in the fall of 2021.

According to the aftermetoo study, two-thirds of people who have experienced or observed sexual misconduct did not report it. Among the reasons given for not doing so, 43% said they were afraid that it would damage their reputation at work; 43% said that they wanted to avoid being seen as difficult or antagonistic; 31% said that they were afraid that the organization would not retain their services in the future; and 23% said that they were afraid to speak out.

The Centre for Free Expression study had similar findings: in the 43 cases where misconduct was not reported, the top three reasons were (1) wanting to avoid conflict, (2) not thinking it would make a difference, and (3) fearing retaliation.

What changes can we envision?

Both reports contain recommendations related to combating harassment and discrimination in arts and culture workplaces. Among those included in the Centre for Free Expression report are measures related to the support and protection of whistleblowers (i.e., those who report the misconduct that they witness). The report notes that whistleblowers are often seen as troublemakers, yet their behaviour can protect their colleagues and themselves from potential abuses of power.

The aftermetoo report highlights changes that survivors would like to see in their workplaces. The most important measure: “For survivors, top of mind among potential changes is the creation of an independent body to take reports of workplace sexual harassment in the performing arts, film, and television industries” (with 97% of respondents indicating that this measure would be somewhat or very important to them). Notably, such a body was established in Quebec in 2018: the organization L’Aparté is responsible for supporting victims of sexual misconduct in the arts and culture. The report highlights a number of other changes that were popular among survivors, relating to arts employers, arts unions and guilds, arts funders, arts service organizations, arts training institutes, as well as arts agents and managers.

In conclusion, it should be noted that significant challenges remain in addressing sexual harassment in the Canadian arts and culture sector. These include the need for meaningful, equitable, and sustainable transformation of a workplace culture that is still perceived to penalize victims and whistleblowers who break the silence. Further reflection on the factors and perceptions that prevail when judging the credibility of stories and victims is needed.

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