Gender-Based Harassment & Human Rights

Learn more about how enforcing traditional gender norms becomes gender-based harassment


Gender-based harassment is one form of sexual harassment. The Human Rights Commission of Ontario has a policy that states gender harassment is “any behaviour that polices and reinforces heterosexual gender norms”. [Ontario Human Rights Commission: Policy on preventing sexual and gender-based harassment.]  Gender harassment can be used to force people to follow traditional sex stereotypes (dominant males, subservient females).



Example: A restaurant that requires women staff to wear revealing clothing if they want the job.

Gender harassment is also used as a bullying tactic, often between members of the same sex.

Example: A grade nine male-identified student has many female friends and is more interested in the arts than athletics. A group of boys at the school repeatedly calls him “fag,” “homo”, “queer” and other names.

Unlike other forms of sexual harassment, gender-based harassment is not generally motivated by sexual interest or intent. It is more often based on hostility and is often an attempt to make the target feel unwelcome in their environment.

In some cases, gender-based harassment may look the same as harassment based on sexual orientation, or homophobic bullying. The Human Rights Code With has been expanded with the addition of the new grounds of “gender expression” and “gender identity” to allow individuals to cite discrimination and/or harassment based on gender expression and identity.

Gender-based harassment can include:

  • invading personal space
  • making unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching, etc.
  • using language that puts someone down and/or comments toward women (or men, in some cases), sex-specific derogatory names
  • leering or inappropriate staring
  • making gender-related comments about someone’s physical characteristics or mannerisms
  • making comments or treating someone badly because they don’t conform with sex-role stereotypes
  • showing or sending pornography, sexual pictures or cartoons, sexually explicit graffiti, or other sexual images (including online)
  • sexual jokes, including passing around written sexual jokes (for example, by e-mail)
  • rough and vulgar humour or language related to gender
  • using sexual or gender-related comment or conduct to bully someone
  • spreading sexual rumours (including online)
  • making suggestive or offensive comments or hints about members of a specific gender
  • making sexual propositions
  • verbally abusing, threatening or taunting someone based on gender
  • bragging about sexual prowess
  • asking questions or talking about sexual activities
  • making an employee dress in a sexualized or gender-specific way
  • acting in a paternalistic way that someone thinks undermines their status or position of responsibility
  • making threats to penalize or otherwise punish a person who refuses to comply with sexual advances (known as reprisal).

Sexual and Gender-based Harassment is against the Law

In Ontario, the Human Rights Code prohibits all forms of discrimination based on sex – and this includes sexual harassment.

The Code applies to five “social" areas:

  • services, goods and facilities (including education)
  • housing
  • contracts
  • employment
  • membership in vocational associations such as trade unions.

The Code prohibits reprisal or “payback” where a person raises issues or complains of sexual harassment. Reprisal includes such things as being hostile to someone, excessive scrutiny (for example, at work), excluding someone socially or other negative behaviour because someone has rejected a sexual advance or other proposition (such as a request for a date).

You do not have to object to the harassment when it happens for there to be a violation, or for you to claim your rights under the Code. You may be in a vulnerable situation and afraid to speak out.

Due to the power imbalance that often exists between the harasser and the person being harassed, and worries about what will happen if they object, people may go along with the unwelcome actions. But in these cases, it is still sexual harassment and it is still against the law.

When deciding if sexual harassment has happened, human rights tribunals look at the impact the conduct had on the person, and whether this had a discriminatory effect. The intention of the harasser does not matter. A lack of intent is no defence to an allegation of sexual harassment.

Who should I contact?

Your local sexual assault centre can support you. If you are being harassed where you work, your first step is to try to resolve the problem by referring to the policy on workplace violence and sexual harassment. Document everything that is said and that happens. If you are in a union, contact your union rep for assistance. If your employer does not take appropriate steps to protect you, or there is no policy, you may be able to have action taken under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Contact Ontario’s Ministry of Labour for more information.

If you think you have been a victim of sexual or gender-based harassment, you can make a complaint (called filing an application) with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). You will need to file this within one year of the last incident of sexual harassment. The Human Rights Legal Support Centre may help you file this application.

Further Reading & Resources