My dad would often ask me, from the time I started school at four years old, what I wanted to be when I grew up. Since then, I wanted to be a dancer, a basketball player, an orthodontist, a gynaecologist, a lawyer and eventually settled to be a disappointment. Seriously! The last time my dad asked me this question – ten years ago – I sighed, looked straight at him and said, “A disappointment, dad. I want to be a disappointment.” Arab children, I beg you never to be this bold unless you want a flip-flop thrown at you, and not those flimsy dollar-store flip-flops either. Over the years, I have thought about how privileged I am to be asked this question and how I took it for granted.

Millions of women worldwide don’t get to choose what they want to be when they grow up. I’ve had the pleasure of trying several careers already. To think that only less than 100 years ago, my only option would have been to be a wife and a mom. Imagine the scarlet letter I’d be carrying if I failed at both or worse, either. Nevermind less than 100 years ago! Today, there still are girls and women who are fighting for the right to be “whatever they want to be when they grow up.” I’m not saying that being a wife and a mom is less impressive. But to have the option to be a wife and a mom is far more exhilarating than being forced to be a wife and a mom by a patriarchic culture designed to limit a woman’s existence to a mere baby-making machine.

Choosing what to be when a girl grows up isn’t the only right women had to fight for. Some of the most apparent rights today, such as continuing education and voting, were forbidden to women worldwide and still are today in certain parts of the world. Being allowed to work is one thing; however, being allowed to work in a safe and inclusive environment is another. In honour of International Women’s Day on March 8th, I want to draw your attention to the remaining work to promote equality within the workplace by referencing the events in parliament this week regarding sexual misconduct allegations against a former General in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). To the few men who may get defensive: please, your insecurities are showing. Settle down and keep reading.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

There’s a saying in the army, law enforcement agencies, and, well, pretty much the whole public sector: “Drink the Kool-Aid.” When used ironically, the catchphrase carries a negative connotation to mean “blindly accepting things as they are” with a “just go with it” attitude. There are many things wrong with our public sector. Still, one practice that drives me up the wall is the toxic environment fuelled by the archaic notion that some jobs are “masculine” and not fit for a lady. For example, being a soldier has long been perceived as a male occupation. While the CAF has been recruiting women for a long time, they’ve been reluctant – or perhaps just slow – to evolve the work culture. Therefore, it seems as though female recruits are forced to find a way to fit into the culture designed to repel them instead of the CAF working towards making the culture more inclusive for everyone to contribute their best. Women – and men – who dare to challenge the status quo and attempt to improve said culture are left on the outskirts, ostracized and alienated. Some even face forms of mental, verbal and physical abuse by their peers or, worse, their superiors. It’s no wonder that so many women either drink the Kool-Aid or settle with a second option for a career that may be viewed as more feminine. But that doesn’t make this OK. We need disruptors within the culture to hold their ground and say, “No. This (behaviour) is not OK.” Before I go on, it’s important to define a toxic culture and work environment and why we all hurt when the workplace is poisoned.

She asked for it when she chose to work here

There’s this misconception that working with men means you have to joke like them, talk like them and act like them. What does this mean? It means: 

  • Making sexual nuances; 
  • Sexual jokes; 
  • Racial slurs; 
  • Microaggressions; 
  • Inappropriate advances; and 
  • Bullying then backpedalling and saying, “don’t be so sensitive; I was just kidding around,”

Let’s take a moment and agree that this is NOT the norm and that most men do not behave this way, but that this culture still exists in primarily unionized and government work environments, i.e. the public sector. If a woman were to join the army, for example, her first instinct would be, “who the hell am I to try and change things?” followed by, “Well, other women don’t seem bothered by it, so I guess I should get with the program.” Eventually, lines get blurred, and barriers get crossed, making it difficult for anyone – especially the woman – to be productive. When it’s finally reported, the talk track is the same: she was a willing participant; she knew what she was getting herself into when she accepted the job; not my fault she’s so sensitive; she’s a b* for reporting it.

Dolores Claiborne; Story: Stephen King; Screenplay: Tony Gilroy; 1995

I joined the CAF Reserves in 2016. I can confidently say that my personal experience was nothing but excellent. I was blessed to be a part of a fantastic platoon and unit. It’s sad, though, that I have to stress how “blessed” or “lucky” I was. The fact that I was lucky suggests that being a part of a unit that respects and values you and understands the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour is not the norm within the army. That said, much has improved for the female soldier in the last 30 years since the CAF decided to progressively implement their “Recruit the Nation” program and hire quality over quantity. However, as we bring in fresh blood and introduce a new outlook, we still have to deal with the lingering old poison, which brings me to former chief of defence staff General Jonathan Vance and Defence Minister, MP Harjit Sajjan.Β 

Whatever you say, boss

Remember when the movie Legally Blonde first came out? We all felt empowered and said, “Yea! I want to be Elle Woods and punch professor Callahan in the face for touching her leg!” I know I wasn’t the only one. The reality – and I’m sure Reese Witherspoon can attest – is not as uplifting and empowering. The consequences of speaking out against sexual harassment, misconduct or assault can be astronomical. Monica Lewinsky and all of President Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby’s flock of women can tell you how difficult it is to break this glass ceiling!

Legally Blonde, 2001: Professor Stromwell to Elle Woods

The former chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, faces sexual misconduct allegations with two subordinates, one of whom he’s alleged to have had a relationship, as reported by the Globe and Mail. This wasn’t supposed to be news to anyone this year since ex-military Ombudsman Gary Walbourne brought an informal complaint to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan three years ago! According to sources inside parliament, Sajjan dismissed the former Ombudsman, ignoring to listen further. Given the high profile nature of the case, one does wonder why the Defence Minister would ignore such a serious allegation, however informal it is? For one, the chief of defence staff reports to the Defence Minister, so to validate such allegations would be extremely scandalous. Not to mention, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau drove home the need for integrity, inclusivity and feminism in his 2015 campaign! Yes, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Gen. Vance. But Prime Minister Trudeau decided to keep him. Why? Because: 

  • The PM already had plans to fire three women from his cabinet; 
  • The SNC bribery scandal was drowning him; and 
  • He had to deal with (now Independent) MP Marwan Tabbara’s sexual assault allegations. Plot twist: PM Trudeau was reluctant to dismiss Tabbara from the party until there was a public outcry… but took only a few minutes to kick out MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, former MPs Jane Philpott and Celina Caesar Chavannes for not drinking the Kool-Aid

Some feminist, eh? Fast forward to 2021, and the informal complaints against Vance have now been made formal AND public. Because It’s 2021, and women still have to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. I’ve said it once, and I’ll repeat it: A Fish Rots From the Head Down.

Equality comes from within

Why do these scandals matter? Why should we promote a healthy and inclusive workplace? Common sense would dictate it’s the right thing to do. But if that’s not enough, it’s apparent that employees who are happy and feel valued and safe in their workplace are infinitely more productive. Women have been working for as long as men have, whether working the household or working a paying job. We need to work together in promoting respect, integrity and professionalism, and safeguard everyone’s dignity because the buck doesn’t stop at women. Harassment, sexual or otherwise, affects everyone. Men and women alike are made to feel like this is the only acceptable way to work. It is not, it never was, and it never will be. 

How can you contribute to your workplace culture? Be proactive and attend or organize peer sessions to discuss what constitutes harassment in the workplace. Set boundaries for yourself and recognize the limits set by others. Don’t be afraid of doing the right thing to support yourself and your colleagues. Speak up when you see inappropriate behaviour. Finally, put the Kool-Aid down and support the women – and men – in the workplace.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Fun Facts & References

Cossette, M., Connolly, A., & Stephenson, M. (2021, February 03). Former top SOLDIER Gen. jonathan VANCE facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with FEMALE Subordinates: Sources. Retrieved March 07, 2021, from https://globalnews.ca/news/7614063/jonathan-vance-sexual-misconduct-operation-honour/?fbclid=IwAR1cJp-osRrUfKFI66c0dDOi4rpdwtwMzEKzV-UB5dud-NpZVpVxpV-gILk

Image from: Derby, F. B. (2020, January 31). 3 external COMMUNICATION goals for women’s rights organizations. Retrieved March 07, 2021, from https://medium.com/@MAKEDA_PR/3-external-communication-goals-for-womens-rights-organizations-ab6cac8bec62

2 thoughts on “Sometimes Being a B* Is All a Woman Has to Hang Onto

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