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Why women don't speak out

by Liane Tessier

Liane Tessier  continues to speak out about harassment that she experienced as a Halifax firefighter and  later while working as a stevedore on the Halifax waterfront. Recently she successfully appealed a decision by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to dismiss her complaint. Photo contributed.
Liane Tessier continues to speak out about harassment that she experienced as a Halifax firefighter and later while working as a stevedore on the Halifax waterfront. Recently she successfully appealed a decision by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to dismiss her complaint. Photo contributed.

Remaining silent; women's conditioned response

For women who have been subjected to gender discrimination or harassment, remaining silent is often the automatic response. Whether it’s in the workplace, at home or at school, fear of speaking out is often instinctual. Furthermore, our experiences teach us that we will not be believed, heard, or taken seriously, and that no adequate justice or resolution is likely.

Harassment in the workplace can take many forms: sexual, physical and verbal, and also in the form of discrimination based on gender, race, or religion. Such discrimination can include being unfairly passed over for promotion or other advancement opportunities. Indeed, anyone can be subjected to it. Whether the harassment is frequent and ongoing or a single incident, workers who are subject to harassment and discrimination deserve the right of recourse. Recourse not only serves to provide justice for the victims, it can reduce the chance that similar incidents happen to another worker.

Coping mechanisms to belong to the Boys' Club

All too frequently, women who are harassed or discriminated against at work don’t report the incidents. Women have been conditioned to fear speaking out, in part because of the lack of support we receive. Instead of speaking out about harassment and discrimination, we, all too often, adopt ways of coping within the workplace: dodging the men we fear, ignoring the behaviour, making excuses for the perpetrator, or minimizing the pain of being abused. Frequently, as women, we will assume that the harassment is our own fault, that we deserve the harassment we’re receiving. For women working within traditionally male-dominated industries as I do, this discrimination and harassment is frustratingly commonplace, and is too often seen as the price one pays to belong to the “boys club”.

We are told that speaking out will be bad for us, or will cause more trouble than good for us and everyone else. This sentiment is shared by many, including caring friends, family and many different kinds of professionals who think that they are doing us a favour by warning us not to rock the boat or by reminding us that we could lose our jobs. These same people even go as far as telling us to keep a low profile, to put up with harassment, or to just “get on with our lives”. In other words, we are taught that the situation is impossible to change. Advice provided by those who care typically reiterates what society expects us to do as a woman, i.e. keep your mouth shut. Furthermore, institutions, government agencies, and employers will often ignore the claims of women, or try to deflect the scrutiny away from the perpetrator’s bad behaviour by attacking the woman personally as a way to deny that gender discrimination is happening within the workplace.

First experiences with backlash from speaking out against harassment

Working as a firefighter for many years in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I was subjected to a campaign of discrimination and harassment from colleagues and superiors. In 2005, when I began to speak out about the discrimination I was subjected to as a female firefighter in my male-dominated workplace, I was ignored and dismissed by my employer and by other organizations and agencies that I reached out to for help. I was seen as a troublemaker by workmates: female colleagues stayed away from me, afraid to share their own experiences, or even to talk to me about mine. I was isolated and purposely ignored by supervisors and other workers. Simply put, I was the “crazy” woman on the fringe making too much out of nothing. Gender discrimination was not seen as an important issue and was therefore not taken seriously. This was true not only for my employers, but also for the government agencies that I sought help from, who were unwilling to address and ill-equipped to investigate gender-based violence.

Breaking the code of silence as a stevedore

Despite my challenging experiences, I continue to speak out about harassment that I experience as a firefighter and also at my other male dominated workplace – working as a stevedore on the Halifax waterfront.

Three years ago, I was verbally harassed by a couple of my stevedore colleagues on the waterfront, and was faced once again with the question of whether I should make a formal complaint or be silent.

After being bullied by two male co-workers in a lunch room full of a dozen men (three of whom were bosses who witnessed the incident), I was verbally assaulted and told by one of the men to “shut the fuck up, you hairy-legged whore!” At this point, I had to think seriously about what I was going to do. I had been fighting against sexism for years as a firefighter and already had a pending human rights case against the city. I knew that, were I to fight this battle again, I would be up against more retaliation, backlash and the dismissive attitudes and systemic discrimination that plague women in the workplace.

Before I made a decision to speak out, I took several days off of work. Still feeling uncomfortable and upset over the incident, I returned to work, only to discover that the story of what happened had circulated around the waterfront like wildfire. I would be the main topic of conversation for days, weeks and months to come.

Both men had told many co-workers that I took a swing at them, hitting one of them on the back of the head. I was horrified and angry that now I had to put up with a rumour which made me look like I was unstable, violent and crazed. Jokes like “did you shave your legs yet Liane? “Watch out, it’s Liane, the trouble maker”, and “I’m afraid of you!” were spoken by the majority of my co-workers. One of the men in question was bragging to other men that he was surprised that I had fought back, since he had thought I would fold and run away with my tail between my legs. The president of the union at the time suggested that I was partly to blame when he alluded to the reports from others that I had acted badly in the incident. I was furious that this inaccurate information was circulating, making it look like I was at fault. I finally decided to make a formal complaint in order to reinstate my personal agency within this lopsided situation.

Once it was known that I had formally complained, however, I was immediately exposed to further harassment from other co-workers at another work site. These co-workers were angry that I had broken the “code of silence” that serves to condone bad behaviour in the workplace and I was rudely denied access to a work vehicle.

As a result of my complaints, all of the men in question did get disciplined for their actions, but not without serious negative consequences for myself, as well. The backlash against me involving other coworkers continued, employing such tactics as ignoring and not talking to me, being rude, and alienating me, as they engaged in petty fault-finding and unwarranted criticism of me and my work.

Like many other employers, the Halifax Waterfront has very limited policies with respect to making its workplace safe for female workers who make a formal complaint. Years after this initial incident, I am still left in a vulnerable position, facing ongoing retaliation from my co-workers, with no support from my employer or my union.

Pressured into mediation

Last year, I was subjected to online bullying and, once again, submitted a formal complaint. In this case, I was pressured into accepting a resolution through “mediation”. My employer and union collectively suggested that I should stop issuing formal complaints in order to stop the poor treatment and continuous retaliation I was experiencing. Complaining, they argued in total seriousness, was only making matters worse for me.

In this way, my employer insinuated that I was responsible for the backlash I was receiving. By making a complaint about harassment, I caused my co-workers to alienate me; the more I spoke out against workplace harassment, the more I was continuously subject to the same. To make matters even worse, I was also blamed for showing signs of depression that came from this alienation. Advocating for your rights as a woman, wanting a safer workplace, and speaking out against harassment should not be a cause for punishment, and yet, in many cases, it is.

This approach is typical of most employers, unions and others who attempt to silence women instead of being proactive in dealing with and addressing both the harassment and the backlash head-on. The retaliation happened to me because I was a woman who dared to speak out. If these organizations did something about the sexist attitudes, resentment, worn-out belief systems, stereotyping, harassing and bullying that are ubiquitous within the work culture of the male dominated workplace, then I and other women would feel that it is safe to speak out.

It’s no wonder that many women do not have the confidence to begin to speak out when very few organizations make workplaces safe for women in the first place. From my experience, most institutional leaders are clueless and lazy when it comes to handling cases of harassment, or attempting to understand our fears about whether the environment is safe. This systemic inattention feeds into our fears and leads us to silence that perpetuates the on-going discrimination that continues to plague us.

Systemic discrimination, however, is dependent on our silence around harassment. The men who perpetuate this system know this, and continue to hope that women will continue to be complacent and silent, too afraid to speak up.

When I filed a complaint of gender discrimination with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, my story was published in the local newspaper. Over a hundred negative comments were posted, comments which were blatantly sexist, violent and defamatory. I was personally attacked and ridiculed, while the individuals posting the comments were able to remain anonymous. Throughout this time, my employer ignored and minimized the effects of these comments. I was devastated and nearly gave up the fight, until I realized that this was what the on-line posters wanted. Abusive people know that women are going to be afraid and intimidated – the establishment counts on it.

Cultural tolerance of violence towards women is pervasive, misunderstood and overlooked and this is why we need to speak up and disappoint the Boys' Club. This is, in my opinion, the only way to start to change the gender imbalance so as to reclaim our voice and power as women.      

As a woman in a male-dominated workplace, because all eyes are on you, there can be a pressure to fit in, be liked and be seen as competent. Men’s rules, attitudes and ideas dominate these spaces, making it very hard to have an alternative way of thinking or behaving, even when you do your job just as well as others.

Sometimes I hear women in these workplaces say with pride: “I’m treated like one of the boys here”. I understand this approach, and also believe that this implies that women will be accepted in these spaces only if they (the women) are more like the men. But I don’t want to be “like a man”. I want to be a woman, working in a male-dominated workplace, free to speak my mind about issues that are important to me.

For women who are in a similar situation as mine, I would like to say that you can expect to be shut out and to be isolated from your coworkers. At the same time, do not put up with continued poor treatment. Speak up for your rights, and speak up against abuse. Others will do whatever they can to attack you, trip you up, and demean you. You will have to watch your back. It will take a lot of your energy to keep going and stay true to what you believe to be the truth. Of course they won’t like it. Your tormentors like it better when you’re afraid and silent, because that’s how they can continue to hold power over you, how they can do the most damage.

What are we so afraid of

 The backlash I continue to experience has happened because some of my meaner-spirited coworkers expect to be protected by their employer or union and could not handle the reality of being written up by a woman. They were angry and resistant to any changes that would force them to question their own behaviour and take responsibility for it. These changes, to clarify, included requirements to monitor their words and actions, and alter their sexist attitudes and beliefs concerning women in their workplace – in other words, to act like adults.

Why, I ask, should we continue to be afraid to speak out about the fact that we were abused by nasty, inappropriate, juvenile adult men who have most often been able to hide within the cultures that support them?

One thing I have realized is that, when one woman gets harassed in the workplace, we all do. As long as you’re a woman in a male-dominated workplace, you’re at risk. When I am called a whore and a cunt, all the other women in my workplace are called the same, whether they are explicitly named or not.

After I submitted my complaints, my female colleagues saw the negative treatment I received from our male colleagues. Many of them told me that they would never feel safe filing a complaint, knowing what I had gone through. What is missing in this sentiment is that I wasn’t born in a vacuum separate from other women, and neither were they. We are all in this together, whether getting harassed or standing up for ourselves. I am a product of my mother, who in turn was a product of her mother, and we are all allies in the struggle against harassment and discrimination.

It’s a personal choice to remain silent – you may have other obligations that are more important than fighting for a workplace free from harassment. For many women in a position similar to mine, speaking out against harassment is not an option. I respect the fact that responsibilities at home involving children and other family members often make it impossible for women to bear the brunt of retaliation. But the women who are in a position to speak out need to try and find the courage to do so.

For women who are in a position to speak out and still don’t, the consequences of silence are huge and can include a loss of self-confidence, and the loss of our strength as women.  Ultimately, silence results in a society which is naïve to the realities of gender-based violence towards all women.  By speaking up, we show how difficult the fight still is for women, and how far we still have to go. By speaking up, we can spread awareness to the public and we can change the way workplace discrimination is understood and handled in public media.

The struggles I’ve gone through to have my claims of gender discrimination and harassment taken seriously is the reality for many women who have fought back against the violence they encountered in the workplace.

In November 2013, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia finally ordered, in a judicial review application, that my gender discrimination complaint, filed back in 2007 with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, be re-examined. The Court acknowledged the existence of an inadequate and flawed process of the Human Rights Commission in my original complaint. I won the right to a new investigation, but it was only after years of fighting against a flawed Commission which is the final arbiter for human rights in the province. I have hope that, this time around, the process will be different, and also recognize that this should never have been such a struggle for any woman trying to have her voice heard in the fight against discrimination and harassment.

Where do we go from here?

The suspicion, paranoia, anger and even hatred that was evident in my situation shows the disdain with which women are treated in many workplaces, where women are not encouraged to speak up and confront harassment for fear of further abuse by co-workers, unions and employers.

Any employer or union which claims to want a respectful workplace for all should be concerned about the fact that women are afraid to speak out about harassment and discrimination. Employers and unions should make real efforts towards making the workplace safer for women. This involves diversity training geared towards understanding women and women’s concerns about working within a male-dominated workplace. It also involves a commitment to making fair treatment and respect towards women the norm, rather than an exception to the rule. Employers and unions must support women who come forward and openly report harassment, and encourage others to do the same.

Until this happens, of course, you will be told you are “crazy” for coming forward, for stepping up as a target for retaliation and abuse. However, remaining silent while tolerating abuse will ultimately, really, make you go “crazy”.

The silence enables toxic work environments to continue unchallenged. For me, coming forward, speaking out, and identifying myself has been the sanest thing I have ever done in my life, no matter how many people try to shut me up. Remaining silent is guaranteed only to change nothing at all.

This article was originally published in the excellent GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine and is re-posted with permission.

The Halifax Media Co-op recently posted a story about Liane's harassment while working as a Halifax Firefighter, and her long struggle with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

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