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

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

If you’ve been following the local (and national) news for the past week or so you’re likely familiar with the case of a Newfoundland and Labrador fire department’s lone female firefighter complaining of sexual harassment and a toxic workplace environment. We should not, for one second, think that the allegations brought forth in this scenario are an anomaly.

My interest in this article is not about analyzing the allegations of harassment that have surfaced and arguing all the reasons why this kind of treatment of women in male dominated professions is unacceptable, but rather thinking about the responsibility we implicitly place upon those facing harassment and discrimination to solve problems themselves.

It’s also abundantly clear from news stories and the resulting deluge of dialogue on the topic that many people have a very limited understanding of sexual harassment, or the expanded term I prefer—sexual and gender-based harassment. It’s not just sexual advances, asking for favours, or grabbing someone. If you subject someone to ridicule or hostility on the basis of their gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.—that’s all gender-based harassment.

Have you heard any of these statements?

“You have to be so careful these days.”
“You can’t say anything to anyone anymore.”
“No one can take a joke.”

Workplace sexual harassment is not about people being “oversensitive” or unable to take a joke. It’s about your conduct making your coworkers uncomfortable to the extent that it has a negative impact on them, their work, and the whole work environment. If you can’t imagine a comment, a gesture, a look making you feel uncomfortable in your workplace, consider your privileges. What privileges do you bring to work every day that may cause you to feel more immune?

The kind of conduct coming under intense scrutiny isn’t only unacceptable today. It’s not the times that have changed—the conduct was likely always deeply inappropriate but workplaces weren’t effectively setting standards for conduct and properly protecting the rights of workers.

And no matter how much ‘awareness’ is spread, we still expect the targets of harassment and alienation to be the ones to suffer the personal, professional, and emotional costs of carrying a complaint.

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 on something they just said.

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.

It shouldn’t just be up to the survivors

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

Then 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. These people deserve to be applauded. It takes a lot of strength and courage to put yourself in the spotlight—either within a single 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.

 The only thing sexists like more than putting down women is doubly putting them down for speaking out about it.

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 about it.

Sometimes people experiencing sexual or gender-based harassment and a hostile work environment are just trying to get through the day. Living your life, going to work, and doing your job can be challenging enough without being tense and stressed every moment about inappropriate comments and actions you’re expecting to occur and reoccur, and without being 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 about their perpetuation of those very problems.

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 before to make me go quiet, awkwardly laugh, or try to joke my way out of the situation. 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.

 Blaming a woman for going along with a threatening, alienating, or off-putting “joke”, in the moment after being blind-sided, is unacceptable.

Since I wrote the original version of this article for my blog—reminding people not to be ashamed when a comment, remark, or gesture takes them by such surprise that they can’t speak out—it happened again. A situation where the sheer surprise of the encounter silenced me. Because this is what my life as a woman is like: being subjected to routine, sudden bursts of sexism yet still never feeling prepared for it. Drive-by sexism.

This week, in a situation of unequal power, a man made a joke to another man about locking me in a back room and keeping me at this office I was visiting. A man who doesn’t know me, who was serving me in a professional situation, made a quick, muffled joke to another man about keeping me captive. Because I’m not a person—just an object or a doll. And keeping women in captivity is apparently funny. Except that it actually happens.

At least I could leave after my appointment. Imagine when your workplace is the hostile environment you dread.

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.

An earlier version of this article was published Jan. 21, 2016 on the author’s blog.

Zaren Healey White is a Master of Gender Studies candidate at Memorial University who writes and speaks about feminism, gender-based violence and harassment, online activism, and Internet culture. She previously completed a M.A. in English at McGill. You can find her blog at www.ofsugar-baitedwords.com and on Twitter @zzzaren.

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