Sexism? Only if you… y’know… LOOK for it

A friend of mine sent me a newspaper article that made my heart hurt:

A young black woman working in the medical imaging department at Toronto Western Hospital was sexually harassed and the object of racial taunts in what a hospital investigation concluded was a “poisoned work environment.”

There are three things you should know to put this story in context. The first is that Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in Canada, and one of the most in the world (more so than Miami, Los Angeles or New York City), having a black population of about 350,000 people (7% of the total metro population). The second is that members of ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented at the lower levels of health care hierarchy (orderlies, custodial workers, nursing assistants) but are underrepresented at the higher levels (doctors, RNs, managers). The third is that while women far and away receive more undergraduate degrees in health-related professions than men do, this trend all but disappears at the graduate and professional level (while this seems to be changing, it is depressingly going in the favour of the opposite gender gap, which is no better). This information is relevant because a black woman who had the education and drive to gain the training required to be a medical imaging technologist is both remarkable and significantly important to a hospital in Toronto.

Instead of recognizing this, Toronto Western Hospital subjected Stacey Walker to months of both racial and sexual harassment, then ignored her complaints for 16 months.

I am sensitive to the fact that there is a significant grey area when it comes to what is and is not acceptable banter in the workplace. I received a text message joke from a friend, and as I was sharing it with the guy I share my desk with, I realized how incredibly sexist it was. Most of the people I work with are women, and my voice isn’t exactly quiet. While it wasn’t an overt kind of sexism, it was still not cool (although it was pretty funny). It can be tough to know where the line is. It is for that reason that there are procedures in place at any workplace to report incidents of sexual harassment and racial insensitivity – they protect both the (hopefully naive) perpetrators and the victims. However, when such reports are ignored, it is strongly indicative of a systemic environment of sexism and racism. The managers may not do it, but they tolerate it.

Of course, the immediate reaction is to blame the victim:

According to the report, the senior technologist admitted to conduct the investigators deemed was sexual harassment. The technologist is quoted in the report describing Walker as a “very troubled, insecure individual” who has “mental issues.”

‘Well sure, I did it, but it was that bitch’s fault for being so crazy!’ It doesn’t matter if she has “mental issues” (read: a uterus) or not, you violated policy, ignored warnings, and behaved not only inappropriately, but in such a way as to compromise her job performance and the safety of her patients. The fact that this kind of effect isn’t obvious to this man is strongly indicative of the power imbalance present in the hospital – it is not just an isolated incident.

As I’ve said before, when a culture of racism (or sexism, in this case) is allowed to propagate by simply masking it and pretending it isn’t there, there will be periodic incidents that are indicative of the real underlying problem. You can’t substitute cologne for bathing, and you can’t substitute “I’m not racist” or “I’m not sexist” for actual progress.

There’s a group of women in India who seem to have the right idea:

Scores of young girls and women applaud the display, and then learn for themselves how to fight back against “eve-teasing” — the south Asian term for sexual harassment in public places. Women across India are often victims of provocative remarks, aggressive male posturing and even physical assaults such as groping on the street and in crowded buses and trains.

In an attempt to combat both the perpetrators of harassment and the underlying culture that seems to permit men to objectify and systematically exploit women, Radha Sharma is instructing women in self-defense. The offshoot of knowing how to fight back is that you internalize the idea that you can fight back, and that it is not all right to allow bullies to have their way. Considering a recent case in which the suicide of a Bangladeshi girl was directly linked to this “Eve teasing” (what a disgustingly euphemistic term for such a horrible practice), such an approach is timely. It’s somewhat more socially effective than a rape-deterring program in South Africa, in which women wear condoms with spiked teeth inside their vaginas (sort of like the “bait car” idea except it maims your penis).

The way to combat sexism and racism is exactly what these Indian women and Ms. Walker have done – talk about it. Don’t stop talking about it until changes are made. Don’t stop fighting until the problem is solved. Don’t simply go along with the crowd, or accept vague promises in lieu of action. Don’t buy the lie that since most people are good, we should pat ourselves on the back and pretend the problem isn’t there. It takes consistent and assertive action to make social changes, but it is definitely possible.


  1. says

    “However, when such reports are ignored, it is strongly indicative of a systemic environment of sexism and racism.”

    I think that’s a key point when evaluating a situation: how did people react to the complaint?

    Taking your text message example, if a coworker complained about it, then the appropriate response is to listen to that complaint, and attempt to see if it is actually sexist. [insert philosophical conundrum about ‘objective viewpoints’ and ‘possibility of stepping beyond one’s own subjective phenomenology’ here]

    If the people passing that stuff around deny the sexism, I’d take that as a fairly decent marker of sexist behaviour: refusing to accept the dissenting opinion.

  2. says

    As with all of these things, there are effects that go beyond simple explanation. My co-workers don’t know me well enough to say something directly to me (well, not the ones that would have overheard). It is reasonable to think that while they may have found the joke offensive they may not have found it so offensive that it warranted a complaint. However, their opinion of me changes regardless of whether or not a formal complaint is warranted.

    Of course that isn’t the case for Ms. Walker who did complain and yet no action was taken. It is circumstances like that (especially when people are told to ‘lighten up’ or that it’s ‘just a joke’) that keep the real cost of sexism and other systemic bigotry hidden. A really good example of this is illustrated in the Tom Hanks movie ‘Philadelphia’ where his co-workers are engaging in a series of homophobic jokes, and Hanks’ character, who is gay, joins in despite being offended because of the climate of the workplace.

  3. says

    “My co-workers don’t know me well enough to say something directly to me (well, not the ones that would have overheard).”

    So two things on this:

    1) I was attempting to generalise a bit.

    2) My point is not whether or not coworkers (in general) raise the complaint, but how the person-with-the-joke would respond if there was a complaint.

    People do thoughtless things from time to time (or even a lot). If their behaviour is never questioned, then it can be difficult (sometimes extremely) for them to examine their own remarks and actions. So simply declaring that someone is sexist after living the life of Denny Crane may be superficially true, but they may also do a complete 180 once it’s brought to their attention that their behaviour is offensive to some.

    I’m thinking specifically of Alemu in this article:

  4. says

    Yeah I agree with you on that. It may not be that the person is ‘a sexist’, but that the behaviour or the specific action(s) are. I generally try to avoid labeling people as sexist/racist/etc., rather their actions. Sometimes it’s unavoidable 😛

    But yes, hopefully if someone is shown how their behaviour is hurting another person, they will take steps to change.

    That’s quite an article. I had no idea that was going on. It fits this post really well. I will re-post this for more people to read.

  5. says

    The defense of accusing the victim of being crazy is pretty common. Part of what has become the standard “nuts and sluts defense”…where she was either asking for it, or was crazy.

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