A holiday set aside to celebrate mothers and everything they do for us is a good occasion to review whether your workplace is doing its fair share to ensure female employees feel safe, respected, and valued.
Despite the many gains women have made in professional fields, there is still a long way to go. According to the United Nations, discriminatory laws and social norms remain prevalent. Women are still underrepresented at all levels of political leadership, and roughly 20 per cent of women aged 15-49 have reported being a victim of physical or sexual violence.
Mother’s Day provides us the opportunity to examine legislation and strategies that aid in advancing women’s rights in the Canadian workplace. By becoming more familiar with these laws and tactics, employers can ensure the equal and equitable treatment of their female employees.
Employment Standards Legislation
All jurisdictions in Canada have employment standards legislation in place to set out the minimum entitlements that employers must provide to their staff (such as minimum wage, vacation time and pay, overtime pay and notice of termination).
In most cases, this legislation also details several unpaid, job-protected leaves that employees can utilize when they require time off work in certain circumstances. In Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the employment standards legislation provide two job-protected leaves specifically enacted to assist women – maternity leave (referred to as pregnancy leave in Ontario) and domestic & sexual violence leave (called interpersonal leave in Manitoba and Saskatchewan).
In Ontario, BC, and Manitoba, birth mothers are entitled to 17 weeks of maternity leave, while expectant mothers in Alberta are entitled to 16 weeks of leave and those in Saskatchewan can avail of up to 19 weeks of leave. These leaves are often coupled with parental leave, which provides between 61-63 weeks of leave depending on the province. Parental leave can be split between parents, while maternity leave cannot.
Additionally, all five jurisdictions have a leave in place to assist individuals who experience domestic and/or sexual violence. While this leave can be utilized by anyone who meets the eligibility criteria, it is predominantly used by women. Both Ontario and British Columbia’s leaves consist of 10 days and/or 15 weeks and cover both domestic and sexual violence, while Alberta’s leave only covers domestic violence and consists of just 10 days.
There are two parts to the interpersonal violence leave in Manitoba, which covers domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking. Employees can use the leave as it best suits their circumstances. One part of the leave permits workers to take up to 10 days of leave consecutively or intermittently in a 52-week period. The second part allows employees to take up to 17 weeks in a 52-week period in one continuous period.
Saskatchewan provides a job-protected interpersonal leave of up to 10 days in a 52-week period for those who have experienced interpersonal or sexual violence. The leave can be availed as five employer paid days and five unpaid days.
How can employers assist female employees in achieving their professional potential?
While employment standards legislation provides the above-noted leaves, employers can also adopt practices that further assist women in balancing their home and work life. Employers should encourage employees to disconnect from work after they have finished their allotted time for the day. They should allow workers to customize their work schedules to coordinate with their family responsibilities. Employers should also urge employees to balance domestic obligations by encouraging male employees to utilize parental leave and support employees through back-to-work programs when they return from a long-term leave.
Health & Safety Legislation
In addition to employment standards laws, all Canadian jurisdictions have health and safety legislation in place to detail the rights and duties of both employers and employees to ensure a safe workplace.
In Alberta, harassment and violence in the workplace falls under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). The OHSA states what constitutes workplace harassment and workplace violence (which includes both domestic and sexual violence). It details employer obligations to prevent workplace harassment and violence. It also states how to address incidents when they do occur, and reviews the requirements for developing, implementing, and maintaining prevention plans, policies and procedures regarding violence and harassment.
British Columbia’s Workers’ Compensation Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act place similar obligations on employers. They must ensure staff members are free from bullying, harassment, and violence in the workplace. While neither of the Acts specifically mention sexual harassment or violence, it can be interpreted to include the same.
Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) provides the most comprehensive protections for individuals who experience sexual harassment and/or violence in the workplace. In 2016, the Ontario legislature amended the OHSA by passing Bill 132: The Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act (Supporting Survivors and Challenging Sexual Violence and Harassment), 2016 (the Bill). The Bill was enacted to acknowledge and eventually eliminate sexual violence and harassment in the workplace by:
- Changing and widening the definition of “workplace harassment” in the OHSA to include “workplace sexual harassment” and,
- Placing additional obligations on employers regarding the prevention of sexual violence and harassment. (These include developing and maintaining policies that address sexual violence and harassment, detailing reporting procedures, and setting out proper investigation practices.)
Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health Act Regulation (Part 10) requires employers to create and implement a written workplace harassment prevention policy, in consultation with the workplace safety and health committee or representative. Sexual harassment in employment is also addressed and prohibited by The Human Rights Code of Manitoba
Employers in Saskatchewan are required to have a policy to prevent harassment in the workplace under The Saskatchewan Employment Act and The Occupational Health and Safety Regulations, 2020. The province recently amended its employment standards legislation to broaden the definition of harassment to include sexual harassment. The amendment also protects students, volunteers and independent contract workers against any form of workplace harassment, including sexual harassment.
While employees of all sexes and genders can experience sexual violence and harassment in the workplace, these legislative protections are especially vital for women. According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 4 women reported having personally experienced inappropriate sexualized behaviour in the workplace in 2019.
What measures can employers take to ensure women in the workplace feel safe and respected?
In addition to the legislative requirements to prevent and address sexual violence and harassment in the workplace, employers can take further steps to ensure employees feel safe and respected. Employers should also implement policies that challenge patriarchal social norms (such as non-gendered uniform policies) and engage male employees to be part of the conversation when discussing sexual violence and harassment. Employers may want to consider specialized training for male employees, such as bystander intervention training.
Employers should also offer peer-support and allyship by offering support groups, online networks, and safe spaces for employees to anonymously voice their concerns without fear of reprisal.
Human Rights Legislation
As with employment standards and health and safety laws, human rights legislation offers protections for women in the workplace. Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan all have human rights laws in place to prohibit actions that discriminate against people based on a protected ground in a protected social area (such as employment). The most notable protected ground that protects women is sex in Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and gender in Alberta.
Women can file a complaint with the human rights commission in their respective jurisdiction if they feel they have been discriminated against in the workplace for being a woman. This could mean unequal treatment at work when it comes to compensation, hiring or promotional opportunities, sexual violence and/or harassment, pregnancy and the associated job-protected leaves, breastfeeding, and more.
In addition to sex and gender, the protected grounds of marital status and family status ensure women are not treated differently based on their home life. Furthermore, the grounds of gender identity/gender expression and sexual orientation protect LGBTQ+ women in the workplace from unequal treatment, violence, and harassment.
How can employers ensure non-discriminatory treatment of women in the workplace?
To promote equal, non-discriminatory treatment of women, employers should be proactive in hiring diverse candidates and improving accountability. This can be done by conducting blind evaluations, skills & knowledge testing, and ensuring job ads are non-gendered (using terms such as salesperson rather than salesman).
Employers must also ensure they are fully accommodating women when it comes to pregnancy, family obligations and breastfeeding in the workplace (women must be provided with a private and sanitary place (not a washroom) to breastfeed and/or pump upon request).
Menopause is another important health issue typically affecting women between the ages of 45 and 55. Symptoms of menopause include but are not limited to hot flashes, insomnia, joint pain, headaches, and digestive issues.
Some ways employers could assist women navigate menopausal years is by creating awareness through health expert talks, sharing information, and offering accommodations, such as flexible working hours, remote work, paid sick leave, desk fans, relaxing the dress code, etc.
Do you need help creating policies in compliance with provincial laws?
Our experts can help you create company policies, and assist you with any HR management, health & safety, and employment advice you may need. To learn more about how our services can benefit your business, call an expert today at 1 (833) 247-3652.