As I write this on International Women’s Day, I am not feeling particularly optimistic for
my gender. Women in Halifax are protesting the acquittal of a cab driver who raped an intoxicated, semi-conscious woman. There are simultaneous inquiries into missing and murdered indigenous women, into uninvestigated sexual assault cases, and into rampant sexual harassment in the armed forces. It seems women can’t feel safe in a cab, on the street or in their workplace.
This past year in Alberta, women running for political party leadership quit after being subjected to vicious online attacks. South of the border, an open admission of sexual assault by a presidential candidate did not result in retribution, rather it was chalked up to ‘locker-room talk’ and ‘boys will be boys.’ The thin veneer of civility is dissolving. Vulgar language, attitudes and behaviours are making a comeback in “polite” society. It’s not just the president, plenty of men feel perfectly free to harass female journalists – especially sports reporters- while they are trying to do their jobs. If you haven’t already seen it, take four minutes to watch #MoreThanMean Women in Sports Face Harassment.
Beyond these examples, the gender pay gap persists and inequality is almost universally present in boards and C-suites. On Monday, Tavia Grant wrote in the Globe and Mail:
At the current rate of change, the global economic gender gap won’t be closed for another 170 years, the World Economic Forum says. Canada has also tumbled down the forum’s global rankings, to 35th place, due to factors such as wage equality, earned income and the share of women in Parliament. – Tavia Grant, Globe and Mail
Progress is slow and the problem often seems intractable. In Lean In, Cheryl Sandberg refers to the Heidi/Howard study where identical resumés are judged more favourably for Howard than for Heidi. On identical qualifications, Howard is more “likeable” than Heidi. Sandberg also refers to research that shows when men don’t take on additional work to help a colleague, people understand that they are already too busy, and respect him for setting boundaries. However, people resent it if a woman doesn’t pitch in when a colleague asks for help. How do you navigate that?
In The Lady Vanishes, the first episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast, Revisionist History, Gladwell explores the phenomenon of tokenism and its resulting backlash. He uses two examples to illustrate his point. The first is English painter Elizabeth Thompson whose painting, Roll Call, was widely celebrated in 1874 – a time when women were not admitted to the Royal Academy. Despite having Roll Call prominently displayed, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, losing admission to the Royal Academy by just two votes that year and producing two more brilliant paintings, Thompson was never admitted to the Royal Academy. She married and disappeared entirely from the art world. It was 1936 before a woman was admitted to the Royal Academy.
Gladwell attributes this to moral licensing, a phenomenon where you allow one outsider into the tent, congratulate yourself for your broad-mindedness, then give yourself moral licence to discriminate even more against the same group. (I believe a similar thing happens with poor food choices after people exercise.) He writes: “You open the door to one outsider and that gives you permission to close the door to the others.”
Gladwell’s second example is former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who faced virulent sexism during her tenure. After she called out the leader of the opposition in a speech in the House of Representatives for “Misogyny. Sexism. Every day from the Leader of the Opposition” and providing a litany of examples for support, Australians elected him as their next prime minister. (Of course, I know, there were certainly other factors involved. My point is there is no penalty for misogyny.) Her hope, of course, is that the road is smoother for the next woman to hold the office.
The source of my frustration on this IWD2017 is that, apparently, statistically, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. I feel this way and I am an educated, middle-class, middle-aged white woman. What about women of colour? Women on the margins? What about women in other parts of the world? What will change the system? What do we do about young women who think the battle is won while their paycheque slowly slips behind that of their male counterparts? How do we encourage women my age who are just so tired of this bullshit?
I will borrow a page from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I think we need to wake – no, shake – the giant, the majority of men who support women. They want equality for their wives, sisters and daughters. They need to understand the biases that exist, but more importantly, they need to help change gender norms, to call out unacceptable behaviour and to send the bullies packing.
Women who are comfortable need to shake off their complacency and help one another. We need to keep charging up that hill, and it will help to know we have more players on our defensive line. This is not Sisyphus endlessly pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again. This is not a damsel in distress scenario. This is a tipping point.