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Parliament Hill staffers share experiences with sexual misconduct at work

Last Updated Mar 19, 2018 at 5:00 am EDT

OTTAWA – With the #MeToo movement shining a spotlight on Parliament Hill’s day-to-day workplace realities, a new survey by The Canadian Press is giving voice to some of those who toil in obscurity for powerful political bosses.

A total of 266 people responded to CP’s anonymous online survey, which asked employees in the Ottawa offices of MPs, senators and cabinet ministers to share their opinions — and their personal experiences — with sexual misconduct in the workplace.

The non-representative results don’t allow broad conclusions about the scale of the problem. But they nonetheless tell a story, at once heart-wrenching and hopeful, about male and female staffers from all parties coping with a culture many say fosters the conditions for abuse.

“Working in politics, we all know someone who has been sexually assaulted or harassed. It goes without question,” one respondent wrote in the survey, which provided no way to verify details or identities.

“We have very little job security, our bosses are very powerful people in their own way, and it’s easy to find yourself in a situation that is incredibly uncomfortable — that can turn ugly.”

Sexual harassment

Sixty-five survey respondents said they had personally experienced sexual harassment in their role as a political staffer, either directly in the workplace, at a work-related function or during interactions involving colleagues or superiors. More than twice as many — 145 respondents — said they had not, while 56 people declined to answer the question.

The types of experiences varied, ranging from staring or leering to sexualized threats or intimidation. Many respondents mentioned more than one.

Asked to specify which incident had the greatest impact, 26 respondents cited being subjected to inappropriate or unwanted comments, jokes or gestures of a sexual nature. Fourteen said it was being pursued sexually against their wishes. Seven said they were leered at and three said they received inappropriate or unwanted telephone calls, text messages or emails of a sexual nature.

One respondent suggested it was difficult to choose a single incident, because one type of behaviour can escalate and lead to another.

“All of this impacts me in the exact same way because it consistently reinforces the notion that no matter what degrees you hold, experience you have, and relationships you’ve built, that you don’t know if you’re in that room because you’re good enough or because someone in that same room wants to (have sex with) you,” the respondent wrote.

Asked who was the perpetrator of the specific incident, six said it was the MP they worked for, while 24 said it was another MP. One mentioned a senator for whom they worked; two others cited senators from a different office. Eleven participants said it was a colleague who works elsewhere on Parliament Hill and two said they’d been harassed by journalists.

Of those who specified the perpetrator’s gender, 92 per cent said it was a man.

Those who took part in the survey described a range of ways in which they’d been affected by the sexual harassment. Several said they now take pains to avoid certain people, particularly when alcohol is around, and to warn other potentially vulnerable staffers to do the same.

Several respondents mentioned they had changed the way they dress for the job.

“I find I over-analyze the clothing I choose to wear in the workplace,” one wrote. “Is something too tight, too low, too short, etc.”

Several respondents linked the experience to mental illness, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I guess I just felt very objectified, like I was just a piece of meat and not a smart and valuable person,” one wrote.

Another, however, described feeling empowered by the experience.

“I’m not saying it’s good, but in my case it gives me a little more fuel in my fire to change the world.”

Sexual assault

Twenty respondents said they had experienced sexual assault in the workplace, while 71 per cent reported no such personal experience.

Asked to specify the incident that had the biggest impact, five respondents said it involved unwanted touching. Another five named unwanted kissing and four respondents said the behaviour was groping. One mentioned sexual intercourse.

Two respondents said the sexual assault was committed by their employer — an MP in one case, a senator in the other — while seven respondents pointed to MPs in other offices. Four said the perpetrator was a colleague on Parliament Hill, but not in their office; another said it was a member of the media.

Men were the perpetrators in 89 per cent of the cases where respondents chose to specify a gender.

Those who did also described a variety of effects the experience had on their lives, including two cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. One male respondent, who reported being sexually assaulted by another man, said the incident made him question his own sexual orientation.

One woman who described unwanted touching by an MP said she has trouble trusting other male MPs, and gets jittery when people get too close.

Additional details

The Canadian Press emailed the online survey, which was available from Feb. 20 to March 12, to staffers currently working in the parliamentary offices of MPs and senators, as well as to key ministerial aides. The emails were sent to roughly 1,500 people, although due to staff turnover and changing roles, it is difficult to determine precisely how many received the message.

They were also encouraged to share it with colleagues also currently in those roles, a distribution method sometimes called snowball sampling. Just as a snowball grows while rolling downhill, a survey distributed this way can gather more data. Since there is no way to guarantee the total size of the population, however, the results cannot be considered representative.

The Canadian Press has agreed to shared anonymized, aggregated data with Samara Canada, a non-partisan charity that promotes civic engagement, for further research. The organization also provided feedback on the design of the survey.

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