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Entries in In the News (1)

Thursday
Nov062014

Why women don't say something is painfully obvious

I don't normally blog about news stories. I'm not a journalist, and frankly, there are enough "experts" out there, talking about issues of which they know little. But this one has stayed with me.

I have never really been a fan of Jian Ghomeshi (For those who don't know, Ghomeshi is a former CBC radio personality who has been accused of sexual harassment by nine women). I always found him a little pretentious, and didn't really connect with his take on culture. When I read the story as it broke, I didn't really know what to think, but I was immediately concerned with those women. 

Many of Ghomeshi's interactions involved young women. I have a daughter who is 25, working in an environment where male professors can exert power (and abuse) upon their female students. My daughter's PhD supervisor is a woman, but in the past, she has worked with male professors. Fortunately, she's had good experiences.  

In the wake of the allegations against Ghomeshi, many other woman have spoken up. There is always a common theme: they were afraid to say something. To ask the question: Why don't you report it? is, in my opinion, not a helpful question. To me, it seems painfully obvious.

When I was 20 years old, I worked for one of Canada's large banks. I worked in a corporate finance area, and the majority of the management staff was male. The secretaries (like me) and clerical staff were women. I think there was three female account managers at the time.

My boss was a man in his mid-forties, with whom I got on well. He was funny, agreeable, and helpful. I hadn't been working with him long before I realized that he commented often on what I wore. I didn't really like it, but it was mostly harmless. It usually consisted of him asking me if I'd blown my paycheque that week.

One winter day, however, I wore a dress which I really liked, and felt pretty in. That morning, my boss commented:

"That dress accentuates your bum."

Perhaps that seems harmless. Perhaps you think he was being complimentary. Perhaps you wonder, "Was it too, tight, dear?"  It didn't feel complimentary to me. In fact, my immediate reaction was to feel humiliated. All I could think was, "My boss is looking at my rear end, and telling me about it." 

For the rest of the day, I tried to avoid him and all men around me. I sat down if I could. I never wore that dress again. 

That same day, I mentioned my discomfort to another secretary who believed I should tell him my views on the matter. An older woman, our supervisor, told me that if I did, I would regret it. He would make my life miserable, she said. She suggested I not wear fitted clothes to work. She never asked me if I wanted her to intervene. How helpful. 

Women don't say anything because they face similar reactions to the one I faced; even in 2014, when we are all so enlightened. The automatic assumption that a woman has "asked for it," has not really disappeared. There is a lingering assumption that it is her fault.

Abuse against women, whether it happens in the workplace or in the home or in the classroom is not about just women: it's about humanity in general. It's about power and the one who holds it and how he/she uses it. And it's not confined to men. Mothers who physically or emotionally abuse their children are not doing it because of gender. They do it because they can. It's about not treating people, created in God's image, with the dignity and protection they deserve. In my case, I was a young woman under the authority of a male boss who felt free to speak to me in a way that he as a married man, and someone who is not my husband, should not speak.

I got away from that encounter without any serious problems. I began to keep my distance from him unless absolutely necessary, and looked for clothing that Mary Poppins would have worn. Eventually, he was transferred, to my great relief. But today, in some office somewhere, there is someone just like I was, afraid to say anything. I seriously wonder if anyone can truly avoid asking, "Why didn't you say anything?" unless he/she has had the experience.