Frank Stronach allegations highlight harassment in the workplace

Frank Stronach allegations highlight harassment in the workplace

Police in Canada recently charged Frank Stronach, the founder of auto parts manufacturer Magna International, with multiple sexual offences dating back to 1977. The charges include rape, indecent assault, sexual assault and forcible confinement. Stronach’s lawyer has said he “categorically denies” the allegations.

In the Globe and Mailwriter Jane Boon recently described her experience with Stronach when she was a 19-year-old co-op student mentored by Stronach. The statement from Stronach’s lawyer denying the criminal allegations did not specifically address the claims made by Boon.

She describes Stronach inviting her to a shareholder party, where her presence at his side didn’t seem to raise an eyebrow among the attendees. Boon alleged that she was repeatedly served alcohol while Stronach proposed she stay at Magna’s corporate guest house to sleep off the effects. Boon states she twice declined, but Stronach insisted on driving her alone to the guest house. As Boon alleges, her impaired condition did not preclude Stronach from having sex with her that night.

Some might see the allegations against Stronach as a product of his status and corporate apparatus. However, sexual harassment is not only perpetrated by the affluent Harvey Weinsteins and Peter Nygårds of the world. Rather, the echoes of #MeToo are heard in our everyday workplaces and especially reverberate among female students as they seek summer employment, practicums and volunteering.

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Canadian police have charged Frank Stronach with sexual offences dating back to the 1980s.
(AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)

Harassment in the workplace

According to data from Statistics Canada, around half of girls and women aged 15-34 report experiencing sexual harassment and assault at work. Not surprisingly, a majority reported the perpetrator was a man in a position of authority.

This data exposes the reality that, for many young women, seeking employment opportunities carries serious risks of sexual harassment and violence. From offensive “jokes,” to a toxic workplace culture to inappropriate touching, young women are frequently caught in the dilemma of working in unsafe and undignified environments or compromising their financial security and forfeiting career dreams.

I have previously served as the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Over the years, human rights cases have exposed an alarming pattern of abuse of power, explicit solicitation and sexual assault targeting junior female staff by employers many years their senior.

In 2014, the Ontario human rights case JD v. The Ultimate Cut Unisex found a hair salon owner engaged in sexual harassment of two part-time students, ED age 15, JD age 20, and a third trainee. The sexual overtures were explicit. However, as JD explained, she needed to pay tuition and ignored them, until the physical advances escalated, compelling her to tell her parents. The human rights tribunal described the salon owner’s actions as so “offensive and intrusive” that the girls were forced to resign for their safety.

In the 2018 case of GM v. X Tattoo Parlour, a 15-year-old student volunteer was sexually harassed by the owner of a tattoo parlour. The human rights tribunal found the student’s delight over getting the position quickly morphed into despondency because of the egregious misconduct. The tribunal noted that, while teenagers often change their minds regarding future careers, this student did not have that opportunity, as her dream was robbed by the respondent’s sexual assault.

In a British Columbia case, Basic v. Esquimalt Denture Clinic, a high school graduate was working her first professional environment job and saving for her upcoming wedding. Her employer acknowledged repeatedly touching her buttocks and breasts, claiming it was always accidental.

Earlier this year, in Kreps v. AHMIC Maintenance & Storage, a 20-year-old female student was sexually harassed at her summer job by her 53-year-old boss. The tribunal heard how he orchestrated extended time alone with her, including taking her on a purported work trip to an isolated camp with no public access or cell service. The tribunal found the harassment heightened the student’s vulnerability, causing her debilitating mental anguish.

A woman sitting at a desk with a concerned look as a man stands with his hand on her shoulder.
Experiences of sexual harassment not only adversely impact survivors in the short-term, but also have serious long-term consequences.
(Shutterstock)

A systemic problem

In all these cases, sexual harassment was not perpetrated by a powerful billionaire, but by ordinary employers. This reveals how older employers routinely abuse their power to target young women in the workplace.

Such disturbing experiences of sexual harassment not only adversely impact survivors in the short-term, but as research confirms, also have serious long-term consequences destabilizing the trajectory of young women’s health and futures.

Boon’s alleged encounter with Stronach not only stopped her from seeking further opportunities at Magna, but tainted her interest in engineering. For 15-year-old ED, the salon owner’s harassment made her fearful of working with men. Similarly, the British Columbia complainant experienced panic attacks and lost interest in her wedding plans.

The experiences of these young women in the workforce also point to a systemic problem. More needs to be done to respect the safety and dignity of young women in workplaces.

Two key risk factors correlating with workplace sexual violence are weak policies and inadequate organizational support by employers for complainants. Although all Canadian jurisdictions prohibit sexual harassment in employment, one-third of female victims indicated their workplace did not provide information on how to report the misconduct, and almost three-quarters said a bystander witnessed the impropriety.

Employers must ensure managers are educated about their legal duty to prevent sexual harassment. One concrete step is to implement zero-tolerance policies prohibiting sexual jokes and pornography, and ensuring new staff and witnesses are empowered on how to use complaint mechanisms. Human rights tribunals need to increase monetary compensation for sex-related violations to ensure that businesses understand shrugging off concerns will lead to costly liabilities.

The frequent abuses of power that vulnerable girls and young women experience at the hands of senior employers is a grave concern often ignored by societies more preoccupied with scandals of the rich and famous. While high-profile cases like Stronach’s make headlines, young women employed in run-of-the-mill workplaces need stronger safeguards. The pain and trauma of ordinary survivors of sexual harassment deserves our attention and protection, too.