OTTAWA—Young political staffers on Parliament Hill, who often are ambitious and desperate for a foothold in their chosen profession, can be much more vulnerable to the scourge of sexual misconduct than their older, more experienced colleagues and elected counterparts, says Green Party leader Elizabeth May.
Indeed, May, who took part in a recent Canadian Press survey of female MPs about their experiences with sexual harassment, is drawing comparisons between the career ladder in political Ottawa and the familiar Hollywood cliché of a “casting couch” mentality.
Thirty-eight of Canada's 89 female MPs took part in the survey, with more than half of respondents (58 percent) reporting they personally had been the target of one or more forms of sexual misconduct while in office, including inappropriate or unwanted remarks, gestures, or text messages of a sexual nature.
Political staffers often lack job security, making them far less likely to speak up about their experiences—especially when the problem lies with someone who is in a position of authority, noted May, who likened their environment at times to the “star culture” of Tinseltown.
“There are political equivalents of the casting couch, and if you want to get ahead in certain political parties, you do not want to offend people who are seen to be movers and shakers,” she said.
“It is not a normal workplace in that sense," May conceded. "I don't think the culture is going to change overnight, but I do think it is important to have mechanisms for complaints that allow for confidentiality.”
Shifting the culture and fixing the power imbalance on the Hill is going to demand that male MPs speak up when they are made aware of unacceptable behaviour, she added.
“If you hear something in your caucus meetings you think is just bad form, tell your male colleagues," said May, who expressed optimism of change now that the "floodgate” has opened in politics, sport, and the entertainment industry.
“Politics and power run together, which means power and politics and sex run together, and men in positions of power are going to abuse that,” she argued.
“To change that culture and to really have men in politics that understand that they're feminists . . . that is a big step culturally for politics.”
Three MPs who responded to the voluntary survey said they had been victims of sexual assault while four said they experienced sexual harassment, defined in the survey as insistent and repeated sexual advances.
Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) were subjected to inappropriate comments on social media.
Meanwhile, 63 percent said they don't believe the level of harassment in federal politics is any different than any other workplace.
May was full of praise for National Revenue minister Diane Lebouthillier, who told The Canadian Press that she encouraged two young female staffers to file a complaint after noticing their discomfort with someone in a position of authority.
The House of Commons has not confirmed receiving the complaint.
Lebouthillier, who would not provide further details, told the staffers to add her own name to the complaint.
They later told her they would not have done it without her encouragement.
“Good for her,” May said.