Feminist. Professional. Woman. And part of the #$%^&%$# problem.

I met with a former coworker the other day, who I had not seen in some years. I was anxious to meet with her because I had realized recently, with a sudden sickening shock, that I had done her a serious injustice. Years before she had informed me that our boss has been sexually harassing her. And I blew her off. I thought that she was misreading his flirtatious cues, and that she was blowing things out of proportion. I failed to see that a fearful, stammering young woman, who sincerely believed (because he TOLD her so) that this man could seriously affect her career and her future, would not be able to verbalize in cold and overt terms the severity of her horrifying and humiliating experiences to me. Her language was oblique, and my while I listened I did not hear. If he hadn’t behaved that way with me, it couldn’t have happened to her, right?

Except, of course it could. And it did.

Not by way of excuse but rather explanation, I have had a long career in two of the most ageist, sexist (and who’s kidding who, racist) industries in the world. When I started out, you had to be able to blend with the boys. You had to be able to match them drink for drink, drug for drug and to be able to take the teasing lest you be branded with the stamp of being too “sensitive” or lacking a sense of humour. For anyone trying to ascend the ladder of success you had to man up like a champ. Hell, we even dressed like them. Femininity brought comments, and softness equaled weakness in an environment where only the tough survived, and were able to carve out a sliver or respect. Those who rose were routinely described as ball-busting bitches, probably feared more than admired.

I can’t count the number of times I was touched or commented on/to,  or engaged with  in a patronizing or even menacing way.  But I internalized it.  Normalized it.  And stopped noticing it, for myself and those around me.

The various scandals (Ghomeshi, Cosby, Weinstein) have brought the comments to the fore. In a way, it is a relief to give the toxic funk some air, and to see how stunningly deep that miasma of abuse can go, fuelled I suspect by the notion that if we shine a light it cannot be ignored and the vapor will not be able to dissipate.

The idea that men have to somehow acknowledge their participation, overt or unconscious, in the subjugation of women has been covered ad nauseum. I hope it continues to be. Just as we need to understand that sexual harassment – verbal, emotional, physical – is really about power and manipulation, so do we need to acknowledge that a single sex is not responsible for making the overwhelming changes that so urgently need to pass.

I, as an adult, professional who self identifies as a staunch feminist, have failed in this task. I am horrified, humbled, and ashamed. And I vow to learn, to shed my cowardice and fear of recrimination. I need to listen to my fellow humans (recognizing in that statement that ALL genders can suffer at the hands of a predator, who can indeed be a member of ANY gender). And I need to act.

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*PS – I absolutely acknowledge the hypocrisy of not naming the perpetrator of the harassment referred to in the first paragraph, but in the interest of respecting the privacy of my coworker I have not.

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