#MeToo and Making Things Different

The #MeToo movement has generated a lot of discussion, not only around the numerous revelations of sexual misconduct, but also around what organizations can or should do to prevent those incidents from happening in the first place.

This past weekend, Christy Clark, the former premier of British Columbia, wrote an opinion article in The Globe and Mail newspaper, titled “Turning #MeToo into a tangible shift for female leaders“. Here’s some of what she said in that article:

I have been in politics for more than 30 years…Over those years, I saw plenty of men behaving badly. It made me promise myself that I would do things differently should I ever get the chance to lead…Our Speaker was a woman, our government caucus chair was a woman and our Lieutenant-Governor was a woman. The two first female attorneys-general in BC history were appointed, Our 125,000+ civil service, finance ministry and largest Crown corporation were run by women, and more than a third of our government board appointees were women.

Appointing women to high-profile positions has a lot of symbolic value, and having women in those positions is certainly better than not having any women in power at all. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t make much difference in the long run if women are in charge, but the systems, structures, and behaviours that oppressed them in the first place stay the same.

It’s difficult to take Clark’s claims about “do[ing] things differently” seriously. She didn’t appear to do things differently in selecting the people she worked with. For example, there’s the 2012 events around her former chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool, who abruptly resigned from his job because of an “unspecified personal indiscretion”, allegedly involving him making advances to a female staffer.  There were no formal records kept of the alleged investigation into the incident, and Clark even took him on a major international trip with her during the time he was supposedly under investigation.

And then there was her own behaviour. Clark was confrontational and aggressive in the Legislature – for example, when she ridiculed MLA Jenny Kwan as “the minister for Disneyland” after questions were raised about expenses for a trip that Kwan took with her ex-husband.

And there were larger issues as well. Clark’s government essentially froze social assistance rates during its time in power –  which made it nearly impossible for women receiving government assistance to improve their living situation. Her government also cut back funding for the provincial legal aid system, which made it more difficult for women (and all users of the courts) to get adequate support in their interactions with the justice system.

There’s no question that women in power get unjustly criticized if they’re seen as too weak, and then get criticized just as strongly if they’re seen as being too strong. That’s a difficult balance, and it’s one that men generally don’t have to navigate.And women are certainly under no obligation to treat other women specially or differently just because they’re women.

But making meaningful changes in organizations that benefit women – and that creates organizations that are more welcoming and equitable to everyone – isn’t just a matter of bringing in more women. It also requires changing the processes and practices that excluded them. That can be a major undertaking, and it often means confronting decades-old behavioural norms and facing resistance from those who gain power from that behaviour. But that systemic change does much more to create an equitable workplace than symbolic appointments in a system where very little else appears to change.

One of my friends recently  made a very insightful observation about workplace misconduct. She pointed out that if an employee is caught stealing from their employer, the employer usually acts quickly, and the employee is fired – on the basis that they violated the rules of the workplace and damaged their employer’s reputation. The fiiring is generally seen as an acceptable reaction to the employee’s behaviour. But if an employee is accused of sexual misconduct, the employer’s reaction is often along the lines of, “well, let’s hear both sides of the story” or “maybe there was another reason for what happened”  – even though sexually abusive behaviour towards employees can be just as damaging to an organization’s culture and reputation as employee theft can be. So why is stealing usually a reason to fire someone right away, but sexual abuse isn’t? That sort of implicit inequality is an example of what really needs to change if there are going to be significant improvements in how women are treated at work and in society.

The #MeToo movement is, hopefully, a force that is going to result in change. But even though it’s early on in the change process, like Christy Clark, I hope that #MeToo results in a “tangible shift” for women. The difference between me and her is that I would like to see that shift actually be tangible. And that requires a lot more than putting women in positions of power while overlooking internal and external processes that exclude and oppress many, many other women.




One comment

  1. Thank you for this insightful and thought-provoking post, Fiona. You’re absolutely right in pointing out the double-standard in how organizations handle different types of misconduct — and in illustrating some of the other complex issues that surround the “me too” phenomenon. I join you in hoping that this movement will go beyond simply promoting women into leadership positions and instead bring on real, lasting, and tangible change.

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