Tuesday, March 4, 2014

If only we could bring back the days where the biggest problem seemed to be about whether it counted as sexual harassment when a man told a female colleague she looked attractive.”  This is a quote from a comment piece by Ottawa Citizen columnist Joanne Chianello in which she mourns the lack of political correctness today that once would have stifled (in her view) the kinds of sexualized comments made in emails by several University of Ottawa students about their female student union president.

I am quite baffled by this observation, as I am by the rest of this and other “kids today” commentaries regarding this incident. Ms Chianello makes it sound as if this is something that wouldn’t have happened in the past – that something in society has broken down and allowed such ugly thoughts and deeds to surface.

I’m sorry to say that degrading and sexualized comments about women were commonplace when I attended university decades ago, and I am sure they were commonplace decades before that, although the number of women admitted into institutions of higher learning were much lower then. They have been commonplace outside of institutions of learning as well. In case anyone was wondering, it has not been stock market tips that construction workers have been shouting at women over all these years.

What has changed is perhaps as notable as what hasn’t changed. In an era before electronic communications that leave indelible traces, women who were subjected to sexual harassment, and sexualized comments were left to pit their words against their harassers. And women were generally told that they had misheard. That the comments were never made at all. That they were “oversensitive”. That they had taken the remarks out of context. Today at least there is a chance that a trail of electronic communications will be there to back up a woman who wishes to come forward and complain about how she is being treated.

Another thing that has changed is that now it is possible to get support from within the institution itself. It used to be that (overwhelmingly male) professors and administrators had no time for women who complained about how they had been talked about or treated by their male colleagues. These women were told that they were being oversensitive. That they needed to toughen up. That these were very serious allegations that they should think twice about making lest they harm the reputations of their attackers. Their concerns were trivialized. Today at least, there are many professors who will stand behind women students who complain about how they have been treated – and university administrators understand that this type of conduct is unacceptable and must be addressed.

And perhaps most importantly, there are young women today who feel empowered enough, self-confident enough, and supported enough to come forward and go public when they are treated in this way. Kudos to Anne-Marie Roy for having the courage to take her concerns public, and to speak about this matter with great poise and dignity.

What has NOT changed is the fact that threats of sexualized violence or sexualized and degrading commentary continue to be used to demean, intimidate and harass women. This is an ugly reality that is part of our society’s history – and part of its present as well. We need to call it what it is. We need to make it very clear that it is unacceptable. And we need to not pretend that it is some generational fluke or aberration.

* Teresa Scassa is the Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa, where she is also a professor at the Faculty of Law.

Designed by Rachel Gold.