Thursday, January 21, 2016

Whose job is it to call out workplace sexism and harassment?

Whose responsibility is it to make things better for everyone? Whose responsibility is it to make personal sacrifices and endure hardship to fight injustice?

For background, familiarize yourself with news stories of a Newfoundland and Labrador fire department’s lone female firefighter facing sexual harassment in the workplace from her male peers, including the alleged use of a pornographic video in an instruction session with a male firefighter instructor. The problems have resulted in mass resignations. She’s since been accused of trying to turn it into a “gender issue.” (I’ll just leave that here).

My interest in this post is not about analyzing the horrible allegations of harassment that have surfaced and arguing all the reasons why this kind of treatment of women in male dominated professions is sickening, as this will likely be evident and agreed upon by the kind of people who will read this post, but rather thinking about the responsibility we implicitly place upon those facing harassment and discrimination to solve problems themselves. Read a previous post I wrote about workplace toxicity and gender here.

If you’re like me, you’ve felt in the past that you failed: you failed as a feminist, or an advocate, or a person who stands up. I speak out. I have shut down sexist comments face-to-face. I have been the one to stand up and school people. I’ve also been the one who was unable to fight back, especially when the sexism or mistreatment was directed at me.

It’s a horrible feeling, to think you could have done more, or should have done more, to call out injustice, double standards, or mistreatment against yourself or someone else.

But justice cannot be led by the victims or survivors alone.

When we hear stories of someone who did speak up, who faced the scrutiny of friends, peers, the media, the public, to call out mistreatment, harassment, or discrimination, at great personal and emotional cost, that’s amazing. Those people deserve to be applauded. It takes a lot of strength and courage to put yourself in the spotlight, either solely within a workplace or organization, or within the larger public eye, in order to draw attention to what you’ve experienced. Because we have so much admiration (or disdain and criticism, if you’re a victim-blaming sexist) for people who speak out about sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour, we then tend to sometimes question why someone wouldn’t speak out.

We ask: why didn’t she go to her boss? Why didn’t she tell someone? Why didn’t she confront?

Women have enough working against them, especially in male-dominated fields and workplaces, without getting the charge of “hysterical woman overreacting” or “angry feminist” levelled against them. And yes, someone will paint their rebuttal in that light. The only thing sexists like more than putting down women is doubly putting them down for speaking out.

Sometimes people experiencing sexual or gender-based harassment and a hostile work environment are just trying to survive. Living your life, going to work, and doing your job can be challenging enough without being tense and stressed at very moment about inappropriate comments and actions you’re expecting to reoccur, and worried about becoming alienated, overlooked for opportunities and promotions, or even losing your job for speaking out or accusing someone. The perpetrators of sexism, double standards for women and men, and general maintenance of the sanctity of patriarchy are typically not that open to criticism on their perpetuation of those very problems.

The targets of harassment may just want to get through the day. To blame them for not wanting to take on the burden and stress of fighting the issue just exacerbates the abuse and alienation they’ve already endured.

Often a woman’s, silence, awkward laughter, or reluctant participation are taken as cues (by the perpetrator or sexual harassment apologists) that she was not subjected to harassment or a toxic workplace. Imagine being that person. Imagine being surrounded by peers (and likely superiors) and subjected to inappropriate experiences and misconduct. Imagine not expecting it.

I can attest: the utter shock and surprise of an inappropriate comment, gesture, or action has been enough to make me quiet, awkwardly laugh, or try to joke my way out of the situation before. Sometimes the full impact is not even apparent until later. There are long reaching reverberations to bad treatment. Blaming a woman for going along with a threatening, alienating, or off-putting “joke,” in the moment after being blind-sided, is unacceptable.

I applaud a woman who feels able to make public the unfair treatment and hostility she has endured in the workplace and in a male dominated field. Her actions not only hold the perpetrators accountable, but work to hopefully help prevent future misconduct, or, if nothing else, make the public aware of the reprehensible behaviour. But at the same time, we can’t blame the woman who chooses not to take that route.

Yes, victims or survivors often drive change and awareness, but the burden of providing a safe, fair, accommodating workplace must fall on the employer and be shared by all employees. It’s not up to the target of harassment to fight for the right to be employed, given fair opportunity, and treated with respect