Gender-based violence in the workplace

December 6 marks the anniversary of the murders in 1989 of 14 women at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal. They died because they were women. It’s unbelievable and wrong that I and countless other women are still fighting against violence and harassment today.

The past few years have offered a sea of change in terms of women refusing to be silent about harassment and discrimination in the workplace, and I’d like to share my story and hopefully create social and legal change. Please share or donate.

Support ‘Funding legal change for women in the workplace’ by donating or sharing today!
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“Support” groups, silent suffering and a culture of submission: The problem with women, part 1

The choices for women who are suffering from harassment in the workplace are either to:

(1) Tolerate it, by avoidance and doing nothing;

(2) Minimize the behaviour, by thinking it doesn’t exist;

(3) Speak up about it, and be subject to retaliation;

(4) Suffer in silence; or

(5) Quit to get away from the problem.

Limited options like these involve different degrees of sacrifice and suffering, which completely compromise our ability as women to have a voice. Anything beyond them, in my extensive experience, is the exception to the rule. And although all have negative consequences, nothing seems to be as traumatizing as choosing to speak out. The handful of us who do speak out are crushed by the reality that it’s just not safe to do so.

Challenging a status quo and an organizational structure like those within the male dominated workplace demands a great deal of time and energy, not to mention the emotional toll. At times this process has crushed my soul, and my identity as woman within the Boys’ Club’s domain.

For many women, speaking out against harassment is not an option; responsibilities at home involving children and other family members make it impossible. For me, fighting back has cost thousands of dollars and has been an uphill battle. It has sucked the life out of me. The resulting backlash was debilitating, making me doubt my abilities, my strengths and even myself.

There is no aid or support available for a woman who speaks out against harassment; she isn’t taken seriously, believed or understood. The policies in place only offer protection to a certain point, doing nothing to help change the underlying resentment and negative attitude the majority of men still have for women who speak out against gender discrimination.

One might think immediately of the seemingly many support groups available for women in distress, but 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 do not have a mandate to, or are reluctant to, support women who experience workplace gender discrimination. I’ll elaborate on this a little bit later in the second part of this blog. In this piece, I look at the problems with women themselves.

Unfortunately, in my experience, many women working within male dominated workplaces tolerate the abuse by avoiding the issue of discrimination and remain silent, or help foster the abuse by undermining other women. These women that undermine are generally unaware of their own rights and as are result are co-opted by the Boys’ Club. Even those who have experienced harassment continually deny the existence of workplace gender discrimination and minimize the damage it causes.

For example, when I started to make my voice heard at work and formally complained about the discrimination I was experiencing, the Human Resources specialist, a woman, was completely dismissive. She said I was taking everything too personally, suggesting I was trying to get revenge on the men who had taken issue with the complaint I’d made against them. She went so far as to ask if I had been involved in a relationship with one of the men, inferring that it was just some lover’s quarrel we were having. And when I told her about the malicious gossip to which I had been subjected—I was wrongfully and hurtfully accused of being an alcoholic—she dismissed my concerns by saying gossip was a normal part of the workplace and there was nothing she or I could do about it. I also pointed out that I had been subject to ongoing punishment at the station for raising my voice to two male co-workers during an incident where they were clearly in the wrong. Her response was that men simply can’t tolerate being spoken to in that way by a woman, and I just needed to accept that.

My employer’s Human Resources manager’s entire approach to my concerns was based on her view that I should just accept the way I was treated because “that’s the way it is” and “that’s the way men are.” I was sick and astounded at her attitude, and I’ve learned since that incident that such an attitude is typical of women (both co-workers and management) who work within the male-dominated work world. The culture is of acceptance, minimization and neglect; no one is willing to challenge the status quo or interested in supporting anyone who does.

Indeed—the ugly underbelly to my experiences is the role women ourselves play within the boys’ club’s territory. We have completely adopted and succumbed to the Boys’ Club’s way of being and have not even realized it. Within the male dominated workplace we spend most of our time being afraid of each other, our employers, the men in question and ourselves. I feel that we have become so busy minimizing, ignoring and dodging the realities of discrimination that these ways of coping have taken over who we are and marginalized us within the workplace, completely masking the potential we have to be a powerful driver of change.

Women that minimize bad behaviour from their male co-workers help promote and encourage harassment making it very difficult for other women to have a voice and be taken seriously when harassment is happening. While belittling the negative environment may make some women feel safe, ultimately it works to sever communication and solidarity among women. You end up feeling like you have been cast to the wolves by your own kind, suffering and fighting alone.

Let me offer another example. During one of my internal investigations into a particular workplace situation I was involved in, a female co-worker told me over the phone that the men whom I had complained against were trying to manipulate the entire workplace and convince them to go against me so as to make me appear to look “nuts” to the investigation team and other co-workers, labelling me as deluded and crazy — even though there was a gag order in place with respect to the investigation. When I informed the authorities involved, the woman who had told me all this in private denied everything she’d said. This story speaks not only to the detrimental effects of gossip in the workplace, but to how difficult it is as women to support each other.  She could have possibly made a huge difference in my situation but instead the men in question were able to continue with their malicious gossip and manipulate everyone into believing their twisted version of events. I felt completely betrayed and disillusioned.

It’s understandable that we want to get along with the men who dominate our workplaces—unlike the men, who do not and refuse to care about our perspective for the most part. As a result, we align ourselves with the male perspective and forget who we are, becoming nothing more than a facsimile of the men we work with; the perspective is so pervasive that it’s hard to see things from an alternative viewpoint—and it’s safer and easier if you don’t try. We pretend everything is okay and the workplace is fair and equal for both men and women.

But this is an illusion—everything isn’t okay – we are not one big happy family, like we would like to think –far from it. Men often have no tolerance for a perspective other than their own, and our assimilation feeds into that. But we’re not the same as men and I’m not the same as other women. I have different needs and wants from my male co-workers, and I have the right to have them met. When I talk about equality in the workplace, what I mean is that I want equal pay, equal respect and equal opportunity. I should be able to be a woman in a male dominated workplace; in my experience, in current society that’s not okay.

My experience with talking to women from around the country and within my city is that we are all afraid of the same things. It’s funny how we continue to act like individuals separate from one another, and pretend harassment isn’t real. We constantly downplay things, look the other way, give the guys another break, another chance. I can’t count how many times I’ve I heard: “I should have written him up, he got away with that again.” We know bad shit is happening, but nothing ever gets done about it. It’s easier to just put up with it. One woman that I spoke with admitted that she would never file an official (formal) report of harassment, after what she saw me go through. It’s just not safe for women to speak out.

When one women gets harassed in the workplace – we all do. We are all witnessing harassment, we are all guilty if we ignore it, and anyone could be next, whether she believes it or not. It may seem like someone else’s problem, but as long as you’re a woman in a male-dominated workplace, if you speak out, challenge or threaten the boys’ club, you’re at risk. When I got called a whore and a cunt, so did all the other women in my workplace.

In the male-dominated workplace, there’s a pervasive notion that you need to not only be physically strong, but mentally as well, and that if you are not able to put up with the culture of the male environment you need to suck it up or leave. A lot of women are especially outspoken concerning this, and are often angry and annoyed with those who don’t toe the line. They’re even proud that they are able to endure the bullshit. They respond to my concerns by saying things like, “I’ve put up with a lot, so you should too—what’s your problem?”

Deep down, they often know they have been abused—but that doesn’t help when they pretend it’s okay. When women say you’re too sensitive, they are basically minimizing the harassment to make themselves feel safe. When men say this, they want you to minimize the harassment so they can continue to get away with it. Women who minimize bad behaviour from their male co-workers help promote and encourage harassment, by making it difficult for other women to have a voice and be taken seriously when harassment is warranted. Self-denial supports the status quo.

Most women want everything to be okay now. At first, because I didn’t want to think about the pain and humiliation I felt when I was harassed, I just didn’t want to think about it anymore. It was easier that way. But I’ve realized we need to speak out, or nothing will change. Some women are angry with me for doing this, because I’m reminding them about the pain they once felt, about situations to which they chose not to or could not react. Yet whether or not we react, whether or not we report harassment—which women often don’t—the harassers still wield power over us.

Most major harassment incidents and even small ones are covered up by the women themselves.  In all my years of working within the male dominated workplace, there are many incidents that have happened to other female co-workers that I and other fellow co-workers would never know or find out about until years later – sometimes never finding out.  It is clear to me that only a select group of women will ever know another woman’s story of abuse unless you were a trusted close friend.

Speaking out is hard, but it’s worthwhile. But the status quo needs to change; we should feel safe to speak out when we’re abused. It’s sad and outrageous that we can’t, and the unfortunate truth is that women are a part of the problem. I know how hard it is to speak up; and I know the women who don’t speak up are often also suffering deeply. But I’ve also suffered because of others’ refusal to acknowledge that there is a problem or even that I have, on a personal level, been abused. We need to have solidarity, to support one another, and that means being brave enough to admit that we’re scared, that we feel vulnerable and that we are constantly subject to various forms of abuse.

As a rule, men will lie for each other as a way to band together and protect each other. Women, on the other hand, act like individuals, separate from one another, too scared of alienation for themselves if they offer support for their sisters. In the male-dominated workplace, there is no sisterhood like the brotherhood. Which is too bad, because I would like to be free to be a woman within my workplace.