When Sexism Maybe Isn’t Sexism

Earlier this year, the University of Alberta announced that former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell had been appointed “founding principal”  of the Peter Lougheed Leadership College. In an article about her leadership style, for the University’s alumni magazine, Campbell wrote,

When women led in [an] interactive style, it was not recognized as leadership and they did not get credit for it. Men, meanwhile, were being trained to be interactive leaders and were rewarded for their ability to manage in this new way….it was clear that I had an interactive style of leadership. It had been the key to my success in passing contentious legislation as Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general from 1990 to 1993….This approach enabled me to pass a record amount of legislation when I was in the justice portfolio, but I was sometimes perplexed at the lengths journalists would go to to avoid giving me credit for these efforts….Journalists did not recognize my leadership as such because I was not making the noises they associated with leading.

Campbell didn’t provide any specific examples of where or how journalists had allegedly downplayed her achievements because of her gender.

More recently, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark alleged in a year-end interview that members of the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) spoke to her in a “dismissive tone” in the Legislature. She said,

I think that the NDP, some of the members of the NDP, do have a tendency to see women differently from men. It’s something women experience all over the place. Any woman watching this will be going, ‘Uh huh, I’ve felt that.’ So I think I experience a little bit of that from [current NDP Leader] John Horgan, and [past NDP leader] Adrian Dix, as well.

The story about the interview noted that Clark didn’t provide any specific examples of language or behaviour that she considered “dismissive”.

Kim Campbell. (credit: Wikipedia)

Kim Campbell. (credit: Wikipedia)

Christy Clark. (credit: Flickr)

Christy Clark. (credit: Flickr)

Sexism in politics, and in the workplace, is sometimes subtle, and sometimes blatant. And sometimes it’s unintended, or something is perceived as sexism when it wasn’t meant as such. And of course, sexism – unintentional or otherwise – should be called out whenever it occurs. No one wants to go back to the era when women who alleged sexist treatment at work were told that’s the way things were, and they should “suck it up, princess” – or they were fired for being troublemakers. But during this past year, we’ve seen that workplace sexism and harassment hasn’t gone away, as much as we might like to think it has. There have been several very high-profile cases of sexist workplace behaviour in Canada, such as this and this and this.   And in that context, Campbell’s and Clark’s  unsupported allegations are troubling – not because of the alleged sexism, but because neither Campbell or Clark acknowledges that the way they were treated might be for reasons other than sexism.

Campbell and Clark both describe themselves as strong leaders, and during their political careers they have both taken unpopular positions and supported unpopular policies. And both have also struggled in elections. Campbell’s story mentions that she is Canada’s only female prime minister, but doesn’t mention that hers was also one of the shortest terms in office of any Canadian prime minister, and that she and her political party lost the only federal election in which she ran as the party’s leader. And while Clark’s Liberal party won an overwhelming majority in British Columbia’s last provincial election, Clark herself was defeated in her own riding, and had to win a by-election a few months later in a different riding to be able to sit in the provincial legislature.

So in looking at how Campbell and Clark allege they are treated by their colleagues or the media, it’s difficult to clearly separate dislike for the politician from dislike for the person or dislike for the person’s gender. But when their complaints of sexism don’t have any supporting evidence,  it’s simplistic, at best, for them to blame “sexism” as the reason for their negative treatment. And calling something “sexism” when it might not be is demeaning and disrespectful to those women who regularly have to deal with much more obvious and oppressive workplace sexism.

If the amount of sexism and harassment in workplaces is ever going to be reduced or eliminated, women in leadership positions have to realize that they are going to be disliked, and to accept that the dislike may have very little to do with their gender. And those women also have to know when sexism is happening to them, and when it’s not, and to act appropriately based on that identification. Because misunderstanding or misidentifying workplace sexism makes getting rid of it just that much more difficult for everyone.

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