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He said women talk too much in meetings

That was the gist of Yoshiro Mori’s comments. What he actually said was: “If we increase the number of female board members, we have to make sure their speaking time is restricted somewhat, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying.” 

Mori was the head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee until his resignation in February following backlash for his comments.

Mori’s remarks are an example of gender-based hostility. In a workplace, that can be gender-based harassment.

Gender-based harassment is any behaviour that polices and reinforces traditional heterosexual gender norms like comments that someone doesn’t act, look like or dress like a man or a woman should. Or saying or doing things which, while not necessarily sexual in nature, are demeaning to someone based on gender. Things like saying a woman shouldn’t be in her job because she’s not physically as strong or otherwise as capable as a man doing the job.

It’s a form of sexual harassment often rooted in hostility rather than sexual interest or intent. The aim is to make the target feel unwelcome, disparaged and humiliated.

All genders can be targets or perpetrators of gender-based harassment. But the risk of being a target increases with intersectionality and historically marginalized groups. BIPOC women are more likely to be targeted, as are women in leadership positions. So is anyone who is simply different in some way from most others in the group.

Gender-based harassment is prohibited under human rights legislation. It can take many different forms from blatant hostility, “joking” and innuendoes, to inconspicuous behaviours. Using terms like “aggressive”, “emotional” and “sensitive” can carry different connotations and impact when applied to women versus men.

Some of the most common types of gender-based harassment we see in the workplace include:

  • Insults and taunting – gender-based insults and taunting or hostile conduct directed at someone because of their sex. Something like telling a male employee he needs to “man up” and stop being so politically correct because he never joins in his male colleagues’ conversations about explicitly sexual and sexist topics
  • Denigrating sexuality – denigrating a person’s sexuality
  • Sex-specific names – sex-specific derogatory or belittling names including those that aren’t crude on their face but are sexist like “sweetie”, “honey” or “dear”
  • Derogatory language – derogatory language or comments toward women or men
  • Suggestive, offensive remarks – suggestive or offensive remarks or innuendo about members of a specific gender
  • Physical characteristics – gender-related comments about a person’s physical characteristics or mannerisms, even when intended as compliments
  • Non-conformity with sex stereotypes – comments or conduct relating to a person’s perceived non-conformity with a sex-role stereotype or denying a person a job because they don’t fit the stereotype
  • Demeaning treatment based on sex stereotypes – making requests or comments based on sex stereotypes such as asking only female members of the team to do administrative tasks like organizing meetings, making or buying coffee or photocopying
  • Humour – rough and vulgar humour or language related to gender, including displaying images or cartoons which are degrading or offensive based on sex, or that promote gender stereotypes
  • Bullying – sexual or gender-related comment or conduct used to bully a person like a group of men sabotaging a female colleague’s work or making fun of a male colleague who gets manicures
  • Abuse – gender-related verbal abuse, threats, or taunting
  • Unequal treatment of genders – treating men and women differently, such as a manager who calls out male employees for performance issues but does not hold female employees accountable for similar issues. Or a colleague who repeatedly dismisses and cuts off female employees when they speak in meetings but does not do the same with male colleagues

Sometimes gender-based harassment is obvious. But its more often subtle and can be explained away with other seemingly reasonable explanations making it difficult to identify. Where it’s not apparent on its face yet a pattern of discreet conduct emerges, all or most of which could be associated with gender, it warrants a closer look and active steps to address it.