The Problem With Women’s Groups

One might think that given the prevalence of gender problems in male-dominated workplaces there would be a strong and growing network of women working to push back the barriers that keep us separated and marginalized. But such is not the case.

When I think back to almost a decade ago when I first started to fight for justice and reveal the harassment and gender discrimination that was happening to me within my very male dominated job at the time, I truly believed that women’s groups and other similar types of coalitions would surely answer to my call for assistance. Desperate for help, I prayed for some prominent female in either politics or academia (who was just as outraged as I) to speak out publically about the poor treatment and disrespect women like me were subject to while working within this type of environment. In the early years before I started vocalizing my political views publically, I fought for years in private, naively believing that my employers, the numerous agencies and government institutions I sought help from would also rise up to take on what I believed to be a huge societal problem for women everywhere.

Unfortunately gender discrimination/harassment within male dominated workplaces is all too familiar for many women across North America, who still face various forms of sexism and sexual harassment for no other reason than for being female. This continues to be an issue that many, including the general public, industry, employers and even the agencies that are supposed to prevent discrimination and advocate for women rights and freedoms like human rights tribunals and women’s groups, want to avoid and dismiss as irrelevant.

I am completely frustrated and overwhelmed with the lack of support and resources that are available for me as a women working within this type of workplace. My long and disillusioning fight for respect, a fight that I am still engaged in today, was just the beginning of the problems I was to face. The patterns and attitudes of the men within the boys’ club’s territory are merely the product of a much larger problem where sexist and juvenile behavior is time and time again condoned by the companies and organization that are supposedly here to protect and support our rights as women. Their proud claims of diversity and equality within the workplace has been a sham, and everything I started to uncover over time, while trying to fight back, supported the Boys’ Club and forced me to question my sanity and reasons for even trying to fight.

This long fight gets longer and never seems to end when factoring in the other contributors such as the lack of resources and support there is for women like me. Along with the institutional organizations, there is so much negativity and resistance from Human Resources Consultants, union representatives, the males in question, other males and female co-workers, which compounds the problem and adds layer upon layer to the original abuse.

Here in Canada, the majority of both individual women and women’s groups fall short or are absent when it comes to aiding women who are struggling with this type of discrimination. Even national support groups for women are reluctant to support women who experience workplace gender discrimination. Within the last year, as I began to speak out publically, on my own, I received significantly more support from American women’s groups than Canadian ones, which is an unfortunate reality that points to a need for reform of the structure of support groups in this country.

Women’s groups and organization in the US greatly outnumber the groups here in Canada. Documentaries like “The Invisible War” along with numerous law suits and aggressive campaigns for legislative changes are highlighting the atrocities of the “rape culture” that is being exposed within the US military, where a staggering number of women have been sexually assaulted while on active duty. The non-profit organization Gender Justice, of St Paul, Minnesota, is run by two attorneys who contacted me last year when I posted my videos online. Unlike the others, they actually took the time to help me with a legal matter before I was able to find a lawyer here in Canada. In my experience, even lawyers here are reluctant to take on gender related cases.

In my experience, women’s groups are limited and selective in what feminist causes to champion and who to support. This adds to the hopelessness of an already hopeless situation when one realizes that even advocacy groups will not support women who are suffering from gender discrimination in the workplace. This is an area of discussion that will get messy and provoke many—but it is necessary.

Women’s committees and coalitions have areas of priority that issues such as women’s poverty and housing or childcare get attention, and now more than ever, domestic violence and the concept of the “rape culture” is showing up in main stream media with analysis and statistical information helping to raise awareness. But violence against women such as what is happening to women within the male dominated workplace receives no mentioned in the mandates of many organizations that I have sought help from. Even the small numbers of groups that do support women in the trades seem to fall short in aiding women who are suffering from gender discrimination and they did not respond to me when I came knocking. This lack of support from individual women and women’s groups has been one of the most devastating discoveries throughout this arduous journey. Groups that speak of the importance of change and advancing justice for all women are absent and no one should know the struggle more – how could they not? You can’t be selective when touting yourself as a blanket of support – this male dominated culture that I and many other women are a part of is simply not on the list. Through the years I sought out the aid of many individual women who were associated with established organizations and got little or no response. At times, connections were established, but they were temporary commitments of support. None stayed the course and when times got urgent not one group even responded.

Within society today, I believe that there is a growing momentum within the women’s rights movement, and the movement is being galvanized but into separate and distinct agendas. Despite the frequency of campaigns and rallies helping to give credence to both the progress and the marginalization that still largely exists for us, I feel that I as a woman within the movement, fighting for my rights, I have been left out in the cold. There are still many areas in need of attention, but even women’s groups that seek the same justice as I do will not go near this topic. Perhaps in theory, but certainly not in practice. I have approached every group and organization of this sort that I can find, both in my region and beyond, and though there are sometimes words of support, they simply cannot or do not provide any assistance whatsoever. They have no support systems, no resources, and no hope for women like me. Gender inequality in male-dominated workplaces seems to be a topic of the past, the present state of affairs is not widely known, studied, or even taken seriously. Yet, in my experience, it has become a huge societal problem where women do not feel safe to voice their struggles because there is no one there to step up and offer support.

The fight for women’s rights outside the home by women’s groups and other countless individual women fighting tirelessly throughout history has been a long hard won battle – reproductive rights, safer work places, safe housing, child care and numerous other issues are a testament to the improvement of the status of women over the past several decades but many who do this work would say that we are still nowhere near where it should be and aggressive updating is needed to even begin to see equality.

Like many groups fighting or advocating for the same cause, subgroups form making it difficult to feel that your particular voice is being heard and taken seriously. In the sixties, coloured women and lesbians felt alienated and separated from what appeared to be a movement that was limited and catered to middleclass white women’s issues and ideals. I too as a woman fighting for my rights within the movement feel ignored. I am both fascinated and infuriated at the lack of support and now believe this to be a class issue at play here as well as an ego issue.

Historically, the role and original purpose of women’s groups was to help the underprivileged. Those that had the time and resources to help were often from the upper class offering help to those in a lower class. In many ways, this model has not changed. Many look at me they say, “wait a minute, you make way more than I do,” or “you make more than my husband makes”. Perhaps they are saying to themselves: “how dare you ask for help when there are women needing housing and food to feed their children”. But what they don’t understand is by me clearing the way for equality in the workplace – that means that for some of those women who are not working or are just scraping by, maybe their granddaughter or daughters will be able to get these types of jobs, that pay well, and be treated properly and not be afraid or reluctant to go work in this type of environment. So they are missing the point. I’m here to talk about our daughters and granddaughters who may believe the road is clear and the options are open when in reality the barriers are real and sometimes insurmountable. No one can work effectively when the situation is so volatile and the treatment so poor.

Women within any male dominated workplaces are at risk of discrimination and harassment. Whether it’s women in politics, law, medicine, the tech world or women like me in the very – male dominated occupations, like longshoring and firefighting, gender discrimination is real, harmful and widespread. Sexism in everyday life and the workplace is so common that it has become the norm for many women. But we casually just look the other way and minimize its effect on us because we have no other choice then to just shrug it off or pretend it does not exist – having time and time again to either just continue to put up with it, or worst yet, join the men that harass in disrespecting other women or continue to speak out and be the lone radical on the fringe ostracized by co-workers.

All that I know, given my experience, within the context of the male dominated workplace is that we are fearful. Afraid of ourselves, each other, the men we work with and our employers/unions, and as a result silence pervades and we lose ourselves and sense of solidary as women because of it. Even the women’s groups that are there for advocacy and aid, touting relief with impressive messages of hope and triumph are just as afraid.

Most of the women’s groups I have come across who tout that they are going to be helpful and end up not, are in my opinion just as guilty as the men that perpetrate the bad behaviour by helping to prolong the suffering of another women adding yet another layer of doubt and hopelessness to her situation. It’s not just the men and their secure membership (unions, employers, etc.) that are allowing this to happen; there are individual women and women’s groups that just won’t go “there” and in so doing tacitly convey the message that what is happening to women is okay.

I’m doing this for our future generations. I am helping myself so that others can move forward and not be subject to discrimination, make a decent wage, and not necessarily have to have a man in their lives to raise their children and have a good life. Not everyone will agree, but when we move toward these goals, there is a cultural moment of change where the patriarchal society fades a bit and the matriarchal energy comes forward. So there is the possibility of a woman heading a family successfully and not just taking in laundry and scrubbing floors to make ends meet.

Not every family has a man in it. There are women married to women and those women choosing to be by themselves who are simply worn out by a relationship and want to raise their children in peace on their own. So instead of working the local retail job for minimum wage, or seeking public assistance, they can become a firefighter or stevedore, or other well-paid positions, because they are capable and strong enough to do the same work and make the same money as their male counterparts.

I envision this work as offering the opportunity to step out of that patriarchal designed arena and say, “you know what? I can be the head of the household. I can do this, and raise my children comfortably, or even send them to college. I can cloth them and feed them and give them all the advantages that I want to give them because I have this job.”

It may be your daughter, sister, aunt, granddaughter or even great granddaughter who is seeking an equal opportunity and I want to be able to look back and feel that I have contributed to paving the way and they don’t have to go through all the BS that I am having to. And anyone (women’s groups) resistant and walking away from this issue may want to think twice.

Will there be thoughtful preparation, appropriate training, and adequate remedial structures for gender-related issues? Or will the same structures of abuse continue?

Please stay tuned for more posts on what changes can be made to improve and promote solidarity among women’s organizations so as to ensure workplace equality for all women.