Remaining Silent: Women’s Conditioned Response
When women have been treated unfairly or harassed because of their gender, they often keep quiet. People often have a natural fear of speaking up, whether at work, at home, or in school. Also, when women don’t speak up, they think that no one will believe us, listen to us, or take us seriously and that neither justice nor a happy ending is likely.
Discrimination based on a person’s gender, race, or religion can also be a form of sexual, physical, or verbal harassment in the workplace. One form of discrimination is being passed over unfairly for promotions or other chances to move up.
It can happen to anyone. Workers who are harassed or treated unfairly should have the right to seek redress, no matter how often or long the harassment goes on. In addition to giving victims justice, legal action can make it less likely that the same thing will happen to another worker.
Coping Mechanisms to Belong to the Boys’ Club
Too often, women who are harassed or treated unfairly at work do not say anything about it. When women don’t speak up because they don’t get enough support, women have learned to be afraid to speak up. Instead of speaking up about harassment and discrimination at work, we often find ways to deal with it, like avoiding the men we’re afraid of, ignoring the behavior, excusing the offender, or downplaying how painful it is to be harassed.
As women, we often think it’s our fault and that we deserve to be harassed. For women like me who work in industries that have traditionally been dominated by men, discrimination and harassment are annoyingly common and are often seen as the price to pay for being part of the “boys club.”
People tell us that speaking up would hurt us or cause more trouble for us and others than it would be worth. Many people believe this, including caring friends, family, and professionals who think they’re doing us a favor when they tell us not to make waves or that we could lose our jobs if we do. These same people even tell us to stay out of the spotlight, put up with harassment, and “get on with our lives.”
In other words, we are told that nothing can be done to change the situation. People who care often tell women what society expects them to do, which is to be quiet.
Also, organizations, government agencies, and employers often don’t believe what women say or try to draw attention away from the bad behavior of the perpetrator by attacking the woman. This is done to deny that gender discrimination happens in the workplace.
First Experiences With Backlash From Speaking Out Against Harassment
When I worked as a firefighter in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for many years, my coworkers and bosses treated me badly and made it hard for me to do my job. When I spoke out about the discrimination I faced as a female firefighter in a male-dominated field in 2005, my company and other groups and agencies I asked for help from ignored and turned me down. People at work thought I was a troublemaker. Female coworkers avoided me and didn’t want to talk about their own lives or mine. Managers and coworkers tried to make me feel bad and ignored me on purpose. To put it simply, I was the woman on the outside who made too much out of nothing. People didn’t think that gender discrimination was a big deal, so it wasn’t taken seriously. This was true not only of my employers but also of the government agencies I went to for help. They didn’t want to look into violence against women and didn’t have the resources to do so.
What Are We So Afraid of?
Some of my mean-spirited employees thought their company or union would protect them, and they couldn’t handle the fact that they were getting written up by a woman. They were angry, and they didn’t want any changes that would make them think about and take responsibility for what they did.
To be clear, these changes meant that employees had to watch what they said and did and change their sexist attitudes and beliefs about women at work. In other words, when women don’t speak up they had to act like adults.
Why I ask, should we still be afraid to talk about the fact that we were attacked by vile, insensitive, and immature adult men who have been able to hide in cultures that support them?
I’ve noticed that when one woman at work is harassed, we are all harassed. As long as most of the people you work with are men, you are at risk. When I am called a whore and a cunt, all the other women in my job are called the same things, whether they are named or not.
After I turned in my complaints, my female coworkers saw how badly I was treated by our male coworkers. Many of them told me that, after hearing about my experience, they would never feel safe filing a complaint. What’s missing from this feeling is the fact that neither I nor the other women were born alone.
Whether we are being bullied or defending ourselves, we are all in this together. I am the child of my mother, who was the child of her mother, and my mother was the child of her mother. We are allies in the fight against bullying and discrimination.
It’s your choice to keep quiet; you may have more important things to do than fight for a workplace without harassment. Many women in situations like mine can’t say anything when they’re being harassed.
I know that when women don’t speak up, they can’t get revenge because they have to take care of their homes, kids, and other family members. But the women who can speak up need to find the courage to do so.
Women who have the chance to speak up but choose not to may lose self-confidence and strength as women. Silence leads to a culture that doesn’t know the truth about violence against all women because of their gender.
By standing up, we show how hard it is still to fight for women and how far we still need to go. By speaking up, we might make more people aware of workplace bias and change how it is seen and talked about in the media.
Many women who have fought back against violence at work have had the same trouble getting their claims of discrimination and harassment taken seriously as I have.
In November 2013, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia said that my 2007 case with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission about gender discrimination should be looked at again. This was in response to a petition for judicial review.
In my first complaint, the Court agreed that the Human Rights Commission’s process was weak and wrong. I got the right to a new investigation, but I had to fight for it for years against a flawed Commission that is the last judge of human rights in the province. I hope that the process will be different this time, and I agree that it shouldn’t have been such a fight for any woman trying to have her voice heard in the fight against discrimination and harassment.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Mistrust, paranoia, resentment, and even hatred were all present in my situation. This shows how badly women are treated in many workplaces, where women are afraid to report harassment for fear of getting more abuse from coworkers, unions, and employers.
Women’s reluctance to report harassment and discrimination should worry any company or union that says it wants a respectful workplace for everyone.
Employers and unions should try to make workplaces safer for women. This includes training on diversity that addresses women’s concerns about working in an environment dominated by men. It also means agreeing to make fairness and respect for women the norm instead of the exception. Employers and unions need to help and encourage other women to speak up about harassment and report it.
Until this happens, you will be called “crazy” for speaking out and being a target of abuse and retaliation. Still, when women don’t speak up while taking abuse will drive them crazy in the end.
Because it’s quiet, dangerous work conditions can go on without being stopped. Even though other people tried to shut me up, coming forward, speaking up, and naming myself was the smartest thing I have ever done. If you don’t say anything, nothing will change.