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Announcing the Aperta Project’s Toronto Tech Study

“To make something good of the future, you have to look the present in the face.”

Simone de Beauvoir

I’m so proud to announce the launch of The Aperta Project, and its first collaborative initiative: The Toronto Tech Study.

As many of you will already know, I’ve been focused on workplace sexual harassment for the last year and half, following the outpouring of stories that the #MeToo movement unleashed in 2017. To me, workplace harassment is not only utterly detestable, it’s an example of the failing of modern management and Human Resources to close the gap between our rhetoric and reality.

No one would say they want sexual harassment to persist in work places, and yet it does. Organizations continue to enact and optimize ‘best practices’ that don’t actually address harassment, and chalk incidents up to “bad apples” rather than step back and question the accuracy of our current understanding of harassment. Most harassment goes unreported, in part because systems are designed to minimize risk, not support victims. Organizations want to be seen as leaders on diversity and inclusion, but acknowledging harassment as a systemic problem would detract from that image. We’re stuck, and it shows.

The Aperta Project

I launched The Aperta Project as a container for my efforts to start a different conversation about workplace sexual harassment.

Organizations are always hungry for simple answers, “best practices”, and quick fixes. But that’s not going to solve a complex challenge like harassment, and may in fact cause more harm.

I don’t believe the answer is optimizing our current approach (policies, training, investigations), but rather seeking to fully understand and appreciate the problem that we face, and identify new, more effective approaches to address it. A critical element of that is inviting employees into the discussion with us.

Screenshot 2019-06-02 22.19.17

Toronto Tech Study

The Toronto Tech Study is a collaboration with the Cynefin Centre, aimed at helping stakeholders in Toronto’s fast-growing tech ecosystem cultivate a more inclusive and welcoming tech sector by bridging the divide between how organizations and decision-makers perceive sexual harassment, and the first-person experiences of individuals who have been harassed.

Powered by Cognitive Edge’s SenseMakerTM platform, the study will securely and anonymously collect first-person narrative accounts of experiences of sexual harassment in the Toronto Tech sector. These narratives present a unique opportunity to bring a broader set of voices into the exploration of this complex challenge, generating new, actionable insights to address it.

The data and narratives collected will be shared with stakeholders in Toronto’s Tech ecosystem in the Fall of 2019 as the basis for the co-development of strategies and interventions to more effectively address sexual harassment and cultivate more inclusive workplaces. More information on the next phase of this project will be shared soon.

The project is only possible with the generous support of the Cynefin Centre and the time and expertise of my collaborators, Ellie Snowden and Anna Hanchar.

Why this project now?

  1. We haven’t solved it: Even with the increased awareness that the #MeToo movement has brought to this issue, sexual harassment at work continues to be alarmingly common. In 2018 in Canada, 52% of women and 22% of men report they’ve been harassed at work, and 40% of Canadians said that there was some, or a lot, of sexual harassment happening in their workplaces.
  2. We need to address it: As workplaces become increasingly aware of the necessity to build more diverse and inclusive organizations, we risk stalling out by primarily relying on cosmetic employer branding and recruitment initiatives and overlooking endemic issues like harassment which disproportionately harm marginalized and underrepresented groups. For example, research suggests that hostile work environments are a key factor impacting the retention of women in tech roles, black women are disproportionately the targets of sexual harassment, and workplace sexual harassment directed at LGBTQ+ people is a “hidden epidemic”.
  3. We don’t have the answers: Employee voices are largely missing from organizations’ understanding of workplace sexual harassment. Currently, employees are often the audience for corporate information related to harassment (in the form of policies and training) but are only invited to share their own views and experience when they occupy the highly constrained role of complainant during the complaint and investigation process. This is a serious gap, particularly because:
  4. Our current “best practices” are failing: Organizations’ current approach to sexual harassment is based on legal requirements. These standards, while certainly necessary, are (literally) the bare minimum, and are insufficient to prevent harassment. The unintended consequence is that the vast majority of organizations make compliance their objective, rather than exploring more systemic interventions to actually prevent harassment, and trauma-informed responses to address it. A compliance focus can result in further harm to employees who experience harassment, even when that isn’t the organization’s intention.
  5. We’re trying to solve a complex problem with simple solutions: Sexual harassment is a wicked problem that isn’t going to be solved with simple, off-the-shelf activities. And when we bring a simplistic understanding to the issue, like treating it as though it’s a few “bad apples”, we lock ourselves into a feedback loop destined to fail.

Why partner with the Cynefin Centre and use Cognitive Edge’s SenseMakerTM?

  • I’m immensely grateful for the serendipity (via Twitter, of course) that connected me to two of the Centre’s researchers, Ellie and Anna, who were interested in exploring sexual harassment using the Cynefin Centre’s methodology (based on Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework) and tool (SenseMakerTM). The Toronto Tech study was borne from our shared interest in this issue.
  • The Cynefin Centre is a transdisciplinary research and development institution which pioneers the application of complexity science to social issues and public policy.
  • The Cynefin framework is an incredibly valuable lens through which to explore this complex issue with fresh eyes and diverse perspectives. And SenseMakerTM allows us to bring the voices of harassment victims “into the room” in a way that is safe for them, so that we can help leaders, HR professionals, and other stakeholders “see the full system” and co-design better strategies to address harassment. Victims of harassment are experts on their own experience, and their voice must be part of these efforts.

Why Toronto Tech?

  • This incredible, innovative ecosystem is growing faster than any other tech sector on earth, in an exceptionally diverse city. As Dr. Sarah Kaplan has noted, this affords us a unique and precious opportunity to do things differently. We can be more deliberate about cultivating an inclusive and safe tech sector here in Toronto, but to do so we need to be bold and visionary. Good intentions are not enough.
  • This is the right thing to do, and it’s absolutely necessary for the growth and health of the sector. The competition for tech talent is increasingly fierce, but women remain underrepresented, and many organizations have recognized that prospective employees want to join companies with generative and just cultures. But saying you’re a diverse and inclusive employer is a lot easier than being an inclusive employer. One aspect of creating truly inclusive work places is the willingness to name and face difficult and ugly problems like harassment.
  • This project isn’t a “gotcha” – sexual harassment is already happening; this study merely brings it into the open so that we can problem-solve and innovate together.

For more information about the Toronto Tech study, including FAQs, please visit our webpage.

To participate in the study click here.

Photo by Berkay Gumustekin on Unsplash

 

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