It is not always obvious what policies and practices our political leaders support. In Canada, however, our prime minister has made very clear that the removal of gender discrimination is a major focus that he’s already taken steps to implement.
A major component of gender discrimination and one that should have been eliminated long ago is sexual harassment.
Most women have endured sexual harassment. In some cases, it was major, dramatic and undeniable. In far more cases, it was just some demeaning thing that used be to consider part of the landscape – patting, put-downs, pornographic pictures, propositions. Women endured it or laughed it off, and wondered why they felt so shamed and didn’t mention to anyone what was then seen as normal workplace behaviour.
Last year, this issue rose in public awareness in the United States. High-level women in Hollywod’s movie industry dared to point fingers at even more prominent men who had harassed them. Suddenly the silence was broken and the #MeToo movement was born. Thousands of women in the United States and beyond tweeted, marched, demonstrated and let the world know that they, too, had been victims of what we now know is illegal behaviour.
Some of us thought that, in the 21st century, harassment had become unacceptable as well as illegal.
Unfortunately, many men still behave badly. Inappropriate and unexpected words keep coming from people who should know better, including some in the White House.
For most women, the #MeToo movement was very welcome and not a moment too soon. It held the potential to increase women’s comfort in the workplace and open more doors to career equality.
However, not everyone sees #MeToo as a good thing. And it’s not just some thoughtless males who see their sexual playground disrupted who hold negative opinions.
Some people feel that the movement only benefits rich, white women who already have enough power and resources to get into the fray. Poorer women and women of colour, if they speak up at all, are taken less seriously and don’t feel included.
If #MeToo is seen as dominated by if not exclusively for a small, already privileged group of rich American women, this will give those people who would happily dismiss the whole thing the perfect excuse to do so.
#MeToo and its successors need to be – and be seen to be – a reflection of a widespread societal problem. The movement must be inclusive of all who have been or may be the victims of harassment.
Some men have been threatened or harmed by the exposure of their misdeeds or even by yet-unproven accusations. Many more are quite afraid either because they’ve done something in the past that could be brought to light or that something could come up in the future.
The logical solution to this quite rational fear is to change behaviour and always treat women and others as responsible adults in the workplace. However, people aren’t always logical, especially when they’re afraid. To ensure that they will be perfectly blameless in the area of harassment, some frightened males now refuse lunches, business meetings or travel where they might be alone with a female colleague.
Such behaviour would undoubtedly reduce harassment. However, it will also significantly limit opportunities for women to advance in an organization (most of them) where men still hold most of the power and make most of the decisions.
It’s the kind of blame-the-victim thinking that has led other societies to drape women in burqas and confine them in purdah.
In addition, #MeToo is mostly a publicity movement, generating a lot of noise and heat, but little action. As such it’s likely to fade away as public attention moves on to other things, leaving little if any positive change.
To forestall such an outcome, many people (hopefully not all white, rich and in the U.S.) have moved beyond #MeToo to a new social movement, #TimesUp. Although just a few months old, it has already raised more than $20 million, acquired legal support and reached out to help harassment victims. This is the kind of action that can lead to permanent positive change.
As well as supporting action like #TimesUp, there are things individuals can do to generate open and comfortable workplaces. We can all refuse to be a victim or let others be victimized. If someone is behaving unsuitably, call them on it. If an organization displays overt or implicit discrimination, point out the negative consequences. There’s a reason so many good women leave organizations that could have benefited from their talents.
Taking these kinds of actions can help us reach our prime minister’s often-stated goal of creating a society free of gender discrimination.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.
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