This is why we can’t have nice things


Can we, for a moment, assume that nobody is saying (at least publicly) that women should not be allowed to be part of the workforce? At some point in the past, sure, people were saying that a woman has no place outside the home. That argument has morphed somewhat (“a woman’s rightful place ought to be in the home, but they can work if they want/need to”), but I think all sides can agree that nobody is seriously suggesting that it is a bad thing that women have the right to work. Is that fair?

Okay, can we also agree that statistically speaking, fewer women are working than should be? There is a real gender disparity at all levels, where women are underrepresented in all sectors of business. Some of the disparity can be chalked up to women choosing to stay home at a greater frequency than men, but that has no relationship whatsoever to how high they rise in the echelons. So we still have to explain the remaining disparity – why are there fewer women in positions of power? Why don’t we see a more balanced gender ratio?

Maybe… just maybe… it’s shit like this:

A Gatineau, Que., woman says she was wrongfully dismissed after complaining about continual sexual harassment at her federal government job. Zabia Chamberlain worked as a director inside Human Resources and Skills Development Canada until, she says, chronic abuse from her director general forced her to leave her job. She says the department refused to transfer her to an equivalent job, away from the aggressor.

<snip>

In the fall of 2007, Chamberlain was seconded to a director position in the Skills and Employment branch at HRSDC. Chamberlain says her boss regularly intruded into her personal space, with inappropriate touching, pushing himself against her and rubbing her shoulders… Through tears, with shaking hands, Chamberlain explains the harassment didn’t end there. She says he would sometimes fly into a rage and storm into her office. “It was so volatile. He came into my office and slammed the door so loud, it’s the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. He swore. Don’t you ever F—ing do that again.”

She says she asked her boss not to raise his voice or touch her. Then Chamberlain started applying for other jobs inside the public service. She says she had a lot of responsibilities so she was working long hours. She started losing weight and having nightmares. Several of Chamberlain’s co-workers say they witnessed harassment. Some felt bullied themselves by the same manager. Several have written sworn affidavits, documenting what they saw, heard and experienced.

Anyone can have a shitty boss (except me, my boss is awesome). Anyone can face abuse and harassment at the hands of a superior – this is a sad fact of life. People, women more than men, can face sexual harassment in the workplace. People aren’t perfect, and the people in charge tend to be even less so. The world is a shitty place, and shitty things happen.

That isn’t what this story is about.

Given that human beings can to some extent recognize things as being just or unjust, we can attempt to mitigate injustices. The way that Ms. Chamberlain was treated is quite clearly unjust. Regardless of her job performance (which, as far as I can tell, was not in question) her supervisor had no business abusing her the way he did. His conduct was both unprofessional and incredibly harmful to his employees and the work environment generally. But again, some people have shitty bosses. The real problem here is that absolutely nothing was done to correct this circumstance. Complaints were filed about the abuse, and were then promptly ignored. People higher up the ladder insulated the supervisor from criticism, implicitly threatening those who came forward to complain.

If any of this sounds familiar, it absolutely should. This is the same river of bullshit that Stacey Walker in Toronto had to wade through last year. Considering the ‘chilling’ effect that these kinds of situations have – where people are afraid to come forward for fear of professional reprisal – it’s probably a river of bullshit that many women have lots of experience with. It then becomes no mystery why there aren’t more women in the workplace. While this probably doesn’t represent the sum total of obstacles to gender parity, this is certainly an example of a hurdle that women face at a much higher rate than men do. When looked at in context of other barriers (gender attitudes about ability, “masculine” traits being valued over “feminine” ones, in-group biases from male superiors), the picture becomes more and more clear. The system is structured in such a way as to make it tougher for women to compete.

Once again assuming that we actually want more women in positions of authority, what can we do to balance the scales? Is it enough to simply rap our sceptre on our soapbox and say “I declare women to be equal!” The problems are multifaceted and require a concerted level of effort and vigilance. It’s not enough, at this point, to simply say “we will enforce our harassment policies” and expect that to fix the problem. In a perfect world, maybe, that would be enough; of course in a perfect world people wouldn’t get sexually harassed. Complaints about harassment need to be handled particularly assertively (I hesitate to use the word ‘zealously’) – while carefully avoiding arriving at a conclusion in advance of evidence, a woman who has the gumption to come forward and plead her case has to be taken seriously.

Then again, maybe we really don’t want women in positions of power. If that’s the case, we should just keep on keepin’ on.

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Comments

  1. says

    You raise some really good points. As long as sexism is structurally instituted into the system, efforts to include women in the workforce will be little better than tokenism (especially going up the corporate ladder).
    Although it describes a different situation: racism in feminist organization, I think you will find this article interesting, as it describes a similar phenomena:
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/05/22/957012/-White-Privilege-Diary-Series-#1White-Feminist-Privilege-in-Organizations

  2. says

    A few disputes:

    1) It is getting trite how any group disparity is automatically caused by systemic structural discrimination. In the case of the sexes, this is even less plausible, since there are clearly differences (physically and psychologically) between men and women that make them better or worse at certain things. In an ideal meritocracy, you will still have significant gender disparity.

    2) This is less of a case of institutionalized discrimination than it is about public servants closing ranks around bad performers. That is the real problem, which has in part been fostered by iron-clad job security and public-sector union mentality. It also rewards those with a propensity for tribal-style workplace politics, which more often than not are men.

    3) Women staying at home at greater frequency than men has everything to do with how high they can reach. It isn’t a case of a small minority of women who choose to stay home all the time while the majority continuously pursue their careers; most women at some point in their career take some sort of leave, hiatus, or slowdown for family reasons. Top positions are usually held by those with three attributes: exceptional skills, extensive experience, and singleness of purpose. While there is no doubt that women have as much (or more) of the first than men, the fact remains that men more often have an unbroken record of experience and are more willing to throw everyone else, including family, under the bus to further their career.

    Speaking as someone who watched his co-worker’s career be absolutely destroyed by vexatious accusations of harassment from one woman with a history of doing so, there are drawbacks to demanding inequality in the prosecution of harassment cases. This clouds sober judgment and keeps the scales of justice perpetually wobbling.

  3. says

    1 – I think it’s no more trite (and a lot less trite, imo) than the litany of excuses made for gender disparity. Unless you’re talking about being a construction worker or a professional athlete, I fail to see how the physiological/psychological differences between men and women are responsible for the huge disparities in many fields. If they’re not relevant to job performance (and most aren’t), then the disparity must be caused by something else.

    2 – I’ll agree certainly that part of the problem (a major problem) is the culture of silence and protectionism. This doesn’t just happen in the public sector though; police do it, doctors do it, lawyers do it… it’s a serious issue. I think there is urgent need for more transparency and oversight when it comes to unions, because there certainly are abusive practices at work there. I would not agree (and maybe neither would you) that unions need to be abolished.

    3 – I posted that link in the intro of this post; there are many countries where there are more women in the workforce. It doesn’t seem as though Canada has reached some kind of organic equilibrium where the number of women not working is equal to the number that choose not to work, or that the reasons for the glass ceiling effect are naturally-occurring. There’s also the accounts given by women in the workforce to consider – they are identifying a force of sexism at work, and we need to examine that seriously.

    There are always stories of things going overboard. You may have read about the ridiculous Supreme Court decision that ruled in favour of a woman who consented to a sexual activity being performed on her while unconscious, then changes her mind a month later because she has a fight with the guy performing the act. In our prosecution we must be fair and obey the rule of law, but in the things that lead up to the prosecution (the evidence gathering, the complaint process) we should be aware that these things tend to be under-reported rather than over-reported.

  4. says

    Crom, you take the fun out of it when you write stuff that I agree with :o{

    1 – If there is disparity that isn’t related to real differences between men and women, I agree that other factors are in play; I only object to the assumption that it must be because of “shit like this”. As you rightly note, anyone can have a crappy (male or female) boss, and harassment of any type should be approriately dealt with; I only ask for more evidence to make the case that it is specifically women-targeted harassment that causes the disparity in the workplace.

    In addition, differences between men and women have more to do with obvious physical traits (your examples of athletes and construction workers). There has been much ado about the lack of women in the dirty world of politics, but to me it is easily explained by psychological differences between men and women.

    2 – I count doctors, policemen, firefighters as the public sector. In fact, anything in which the worker is part of an association that has a monopoly on labour supply will have problems like these. Do I want to abolish unions? Of course not – freedom of association. I do want to abolish the government-sponsored monopoly that unions enjoy in many instances.

    3 – There are certainly forces of sexism at work, but the question remains whether it has a significant effect on the labour participation of women. In the same vein, you could also say that today’s low male participation in higher education is also evidence of a worrying trend that begs an explanation. Is there institutional sexism in our post-secondary institutions? (tongue half-in-cheek)

    There are many countries where there are more women in the workforce. Assuming this is not as a result of affirmative-action policies and preferential hiring, this may be the strongest evidence that differences in state benefits targeted at women (maternity leave, etc.) have probably the largest effect on their labour participation. In addition, impersonal cultural forces are also likely responsible for a chunk of the disparity, and not so much an epidemic of abusive power-tripping males in management positions.

  5. says

    I am a white male, with a wife, daughters, sisters, neices, nephews, mother-in-law, friends who are women, brothers, father-in-law.

    I want to commend you for taking the time to write this:

    The way that Ms. Chamberlain was treated is quite clearly unjust. Regardless of her job performance (which, as far as I can tell, was not in question) her supervisor had no business abusing her the way he did. His conduct was both unprofessional and incredibly harmful to his employees and the work environment generally. The real problem here is that absolutely nothing was done to correct this circumstance. Complaints were filed about the abuse, and were then promptly ignored. People higher up the ladder insulated the supervisor from criticism, implicitly threatening those who came forward to complain.

    In a perfect world, maybe, that would be enough; of course in a perfect world people wouldn’t get sexually harassed. Complaints about harassment need to be handled particularly assertively … while carefully avoiding arriving at a conclusion in advance of evidence, a woman who has the gumption to come forward and plead her case has to be taken seriously.

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