Carolyn Bennett · VIEWS January 5th, 2015

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Let 2015 be the year we all understand #notOK

Carolyn_Bennett_column

As we look forward to the new year, many of us hope that 2015 will finally bring a new wave of clarity on something that is clearly #notOK.

It’s been over two months since the bombshell revelation of the allegations of “personal misconduct” on Parliament Hill. Ringing in my ears since has been Justin Trudeau’s comment that day: “It’s 2014.”

It’s over 40 years since I arrived at medical school from an all girls’ school and felt that I’d been dropped into a men’s locker room.

At the height of the women’s movement, we were subjected to dermatology lectures projecting images of skin. It wasn’t the horrible rashes and cancers that bothered us. It was slide after slide of buxom women in bikinis, accompanied by snide remarks from the professor that it was too bad the women in medicine didn’t look like that.

Times have changed — at least in medical school. At that time, women made up 20 percent of the class and we were severely intimidated by the perceived “career-limiting move” of speaking out. Now women make up 50–60 percent of medical school classes, and thankfully sexism has absolutely no place in the classrooms of any professor who wants to keep his job.

When I arrived on Parliament Hill from Women’s College Hospital — an institution with a distinct culture of respect and dignity for women — I felt that I had been flung back into the men’s locker room. I was taken aback by the testosterone-driven, “not funny”, “gotcha”, “winners/losers” culture on the Hill. Often I would try and make light of a situation by telling the “How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? That’s not funny joke.” Ha ha ha. Grrrrrrr.

In order to really decrease the incidents both on Parliament Hill and across all of Canadian society, we will have to create a culture of respect and dignity in which harassment is clearly #notOK. This can happen only by identifying and extinguishing the whole spectrum of behaviours that diminish respect and dignity in the workplace, some of which will never meet the bar of a strict definition of harassment.

We need ways of evaluating and rewarding leaders who cultivate respectful workplaces in which everyone comes to work feeling valued and included. Purely complaints-based systems don’t work.

Last month, as I do whenever I’m struggling for answers, I went to see my “Yoda” — professor Ursula Franklin at Christie Gardens. I told her the women on the Hill were being asked if they had ever experienced harassment.

She immediately said, “That’s the wrong question if we’re going to change anything”. She asked, “Why are they focusing on the victims? Why don’t they ask the men if they have ever crossed the line in taking advantage of someone in a position of lesser power?”

Clearly, the long-range strategy begins with ensuring our boys and young men, and our girls and young women, are educated about respectful relationships, power-differentials and the seduction of peer pressure and bullying behaviours.

We should all be asking ourselves what are we teaching our sons: What influence and role models do they have that would have them hit a woman? Why does it seem so difficult for men to understand what “unwelcome” means? Why are we still seeing reports on Twitter of police officers explaining that “sometimes no means yes”?

The rules about drunk driving are clear, so why would “we’d both had a lot to drink” be any excuse for “misinterpretation” of consent?

Surely, if someone understands when it’s not OK to get behind the wheel of a car, they can understand when it is not OK to operate the vehicle of their libido.

All this has to change, but in the here and now the recent weeks have women enraged.

We are talking and sharing incidents that we had never felt safe to share before. We have reached the point at which we don’t want to have to talk about this ever again.

There will always be “remarkable” outliers, but the need to finally denormalize the sexism is palpable. Canadians need to understand that denormalize is just a fancy word for #notOK.

I do believe that 2015 can be the turning point. Like we did when we denormalized smoking and drinking-and-driving, we will get this thing done.

We have redoubled our resolve. We have an obligation to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters, sons and grandsons are not discussing #notOK 40 years on.