Flight attendant Mandalena Lewis did everything “right” by the employee policy book when it came to reporting that a pilot sexually assaulted her during a Maui layover in 2010.
She immediately told her supervisor, then told the police, expecting the man to be terminated and the workplace to be made safe.
But after finding support from her employer inadequate, after being told to stay quiet and that she always had the option to quit, and after discovering it would be next-to-impossible to go after the alleged culprit criminally, a disillusioned Lewis is now trying to uproot the very system that allows such a culture to exist: the Canadian workplace.
She is part of a class-action lawsuit against WestJet, claiming all women at WestJet expect its “Anti-Harassment Promise” policy to be followed, but instead the firm is saving money by not handling harassment and assault complaints adequately.
The suit – more than two years in the making and currently before the courts – comes as a global movement topples men in high places, transcending the bubble of Hollywood into all industries and sectors.
While the MeToo hashtag is highlighting the cultural leniency — even condonation — of sexual assault and harassment, Lewis’s experience paints a bleak picture of how the mess is cleaned up after the trauma, and how workplace culture can create spaces that allow it to happen. And it feeds her desire for real change.
“Any employer who allows this to happen knowingly and is negligent in addressing these issues should absolutely be held to account,” Lewis told Black Press Media from her Vancouver home.
“Going through this process and this turmoil and the grind of it, I can successfully say I completely understand why women don’t go through this process — of actually doing something legally, and something significant and something that’s gonna make a change.”
Despite the re-victimization caused by repeatedly explaining her experience in detail, Lewis perseveres suspecting a court victory will force other Canadian employers to change how they address workplace sexual harassment and assault.
“What I’m hoping for this the biggest thing is that women can see that this courage is very contagious, and given the right tools and solidarity of one another we can create huge change – like a widespread change.”
Reporting to employers riddled with barriers: Lewis
In the wake of Maui, Lewis said her superior couldn’t even direct her on the steps to officially report the incident internally. Her employer gave her the impression what happened to her was “an isolated incident,” and said they’d ensure her and the accused would never have to work on the same plane again.
The pilot was given a set of restrictions preventing him from flying over bodies of water.
“I had done all the correct things, and even still… I was told no, I was told it’s your word against his, I was told be quiet about this.”
Shortly after, she was placed on medical leave for PTSD.
In 2015, five years after she lodged her initial complaint, Lewis received a phone call that would open her eyes. The call came after she had spoken out at a training course in Calgary for pilots and flight attendants about a need for more sexual assault and harassment training at the company. The caller, another woman who worked for WestJet, said she too had been sexually assaulted by the same pilot.
Finding her “brought a lot of truth,” to how Lewis had felt the experience with reporting played out.
“The reality is that happened to me because there is a whole culture that has allowed these males to be predatory – to practice their predatory nature,” Lewis said. “And that is a huge injustice.”
|Mandalena Lewis speaks at a Me Too rally in Vancouver. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)|
Lewis said she’s made peace with the fact she can’t go after the pilot directly – even though he could be doing what she says he did to her, to someone else.
“He took advantage of a system, that’s how I see it. And that’s a healthier way for me to see it because, again, it’s not just the one, it’s many,” she said.
She’s also prepared for an uphill and bloody battle to make their voices heard.
While her lawyers prepared her to be slut-shamed, and targeted as someone spewing lies, her own family has also tried to protect her.
“There were so many people when I first started on this battle that told me not to do it because they love me,” she said. “And I had to almost like cut those people out. Because I have gotten to this point as a survivor that nothing else really matters to me… I know – not just in my gut and not just in my own experience – but from everyone who’s contacted me… it’s bigger than me.”
None of Lewis’ allegations have been proven in court.
On Dec. 15, a B.C. Supreme Court judge denied WestJet’s bid to toss out the lawsuit, which argued that the workers’ compensation board or human rights tribunal would be a more appropriate venue for the complaint rather than the courts.
WestJet said it will not comment on ongoing legal proceedings, responding to Black Press inquiries with the following statement:
“We are committed to fostering a harassment-free workplace where all employees are treated with respect and dignity. We encourage our employees to report any behaviour that may violate our policies via our confidential and anonymous whistleblower hotline or to any member of our leadership team.”
Employers can reverse and heal innapropriate workplace culture
So what does the average Canadian workplace need to do to become safer for all employees?
According to professionals in the field, employers can get ahead of potential claims by condemning the harassment in its most subtle forms before it evolves into a serious problem.
“Those policies need to not to just exist, but be visible, be talked about, be included in orientation, (and) be accompanied by training by employees so that the whole workplace has a clear understanding of what kind of behaviour constitutes harassment and discrimination and won’t be tolerated,” Laura Track, a human rights lawyer with CLAS’s Human Rights Clinic said.
Hugh Pelmore, president and CEO of the workplace conflict resolution firm ARETE Safety, said some workplaces with 200 to 300 employees — realizing the gaps in their own policies — have been soliciting his company to come in and teach harassment training.
“It’s the talk in the lunchroom right now,” he said.
According to Pelmore a lot of the training focuses on dismantling “conflict-avoidance” and “inaction” – two components of the workplace that fellow employees can play a big part in when seeing harassment play out in public. Through practical changes, ARETE Safety’s training puts employees in hypothetical situations to show strategies on how to intervene in real situations before those situations become formal complaints.
From jokes to more overt behaviour, Lewis said she started noticing how common these incidences were, cultivating a harassment-prone workplace.
“When I was going up this trajectory, I was realizing it was everywhere.”
At the foundation of it all is bystander apathy. Also called the bystander effect, it’s what happens when not enough coworkers speak out when they see harassment, Lewis said.
“There isn’t enough people stepping in to say ‘that’s not okay, that’s not funny – we’re not laughing. It’s understandable when it’s taken to the next level of being physically assaulted or abused that you still are sort of required in this environment to be quiet. It’s that power issue.”
Pelmore said reasons why an employee or their witnessing colleague might not speak up often include fear of conflict, fear of embarrassment and fear of reprisals.
|High Pelmore hosts large-scale training session on "unwanted behaviours" in the workplace. (Submitted)|
Training hopefully initiates a reset, or gives some employees a light-bulb moment where a culture shift changes and “Would you mind not doing that anymore?” becomes a respected response that’s taken seriously before things become serious, Pelmore said.
And when training doesn’t work, strong policies are integral
Where certain employees are lacking the self-awareness to realize they’re crossing the line, a “policy with teeth,” is integral.
From a write-up to a suspension, consequences, discipline and possible dismissal are possibilities that need to be painted clearly in the employee handbook, Pelmore said.
In order to be adequate, the policy also needs to acknowledge what sexual harassment typically looks like, Track said.
“Woman are significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment in their workplace than men,” she said – a pattern linked to women continuing to occupy more lower-paying, lower-authority jobs.
“The policy needs to deal with complaints from all possible sources, but also [when] the harasser is the manager, the executive director or the CEO.”
It could be upward of a year before a decision is made in the Lewis case. For the now-32-year-old, that’s another year of that night in 2010 casting a shadow of injustice.
But underneath the back-and-forth of litigation, she said, is a situation that no employer or company will be able to ignore anymore.
“I’m really hoping that it creates a cascading effect,” she said, “that we need to address these issues and start creating a space where we can address these things, confront them.”
Chrous of voices show the strength in numbers
As Me Too shows no signs of slowing, and as each new woman braves the camera to share her story, another finds the courage to come forward, too.
“Women are starting to take back our voices and are creating the catharsis for ourselves and creating our own paths,” Lewis said.
The many B.C. women to recently add their voices to the Me Too chorus seem to agree.
“It’s basically “hash tag who’s next?” Anita Roberts said. “Because as women begin to find their voices and, as I said earlier in the interview, men are scrolling back into their best behaviours going ‘oh my god did I cross the line?’ And literally freaking out that someone is going to call them on it.
After initially being afraid and embarrassed to type ‘Me Too’ into her Facebook status, Krista Loughton says doing so actually proved to be cathartic. She thinks real change is coming.
“It’s not like it’s going to happen tomorrow, but maybe in the next two or three generations, maybe we can see a world that’s more inclusive for all of us,” she said.
“So I think it’s awesome. Thank you Harvey Weinstein. For being a total dick. But look at what is going to come of that.”
Lewis hopes that employers will start to realize it’s not only beneficial to the female employees to ensure a harassment-free workplace, but one that helps the employer by ridding barriers that hinder many woman from promotions into positions of power – creating a more equal dialogue at the top.
“What I’m hoping for this – the biggest thing – is that women can see that this courage is very contagious, and given the right tools and the give the solidarity of one another we can create huge change – like a widespread change,” she said.
Perhaps Leona Huggins of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) Vancouver summed it up at an October Me Too rally in Vancouver.
“We need to recognize that this Me Too movement goes well beyond Hollywood, politics, U.S. gymnastics, Canadian skiing and junior hockey,” she said.
“Sexual violence permeates many areas of our lives, so let’s commit to ending it, let us commit to speak out when we see predatory behaviour, let us commit to believe survivors whatever walk of life they come from.
“Let us commit to hold our institutions accountable, insist that those who are found to have committed sexual violence are removed from their positions of power.
“We don’t need any more members in the #MeToo club.”
- With files from Arnold Lim