This week, Manitobans witnessed a flood of responses from politicians to ongoing concerns about sexual harassment that, depending on your perspective, could represent a step forward.
Or, a small step backward.
Premier Brian Pallister took the point for his government as it announced a series of measures designed to encourage employees to report workplace harassment or other inappropriate behaviour, while providing for more intensive training for cabinet ministers and political staff. The new government initiative also includes pledges to seek out first-hand accounts of harassment and abuse by civil servants and to hire an external consultant to review existing government policies and procedures.
The Tory government’s initiative was preceded by a couple of hours, with an announcement from the NDP opposition — which has been under the gun to explain the suppression of complaints against former cabinet minister Stan Struthers. Struthers is the subject of several allegations of inappropriate touching. The NDP unveiled an anti-harassment policy that extends beyond government to constituency office and caucus staff.
Both the Progressive Conservative government and NDP opposition claimed their announcements provided evidence they are demonstrating "leadership" on a pressing and important issue.
Perhaps. But when you dig deeper into each announcement, there’s evidence to suggest they are more about political posturing and positioning than the creation of a new culture around the pervasive issue of workplace harassment.
'More about political posturing and positioning than the creation of a new culture around the pervasive issue of workplace harassment'
To be clear, this is a government and a political party doing many of what they believe to be the right things for the right reasons.
Across the globe, people are asking themselves how we can make working life safer for women. Organizations of all kinds — public and private sector alike — need not only to do something, but to be seen doing something to remedy the situation.
However, when these efforts are refracted through the lens of partisan politics, there is a danger that hyperbole, exaggeration and miscalculation can take over otherwise noble efforts.
The NDP initiative is, for the most part, a microwave reheating of principles and practices that are already in place through mechanisms offered by the Manitoba Civil Service Commission and the Manitoba Human Rights Commission — both of which have robust and comprehensive policies around the lodging, investigation and resolution of harassment allegations.
The Tory government also can be fairly accused of introducing measures that are largely already present, while exaggerating both the impact and importance of its own announcement.
For example, Pallister said that as a result of the measures he introduced this week, "there need be no fear of reprisal." That is a pretty lofty claim to make at a very early stage in efforts to change the culture of government on harassment and abuse.
In fact, efforts that focus mostly on training and reporting mechanisms — in both the NDP and Tory government policies — do very little to protect women from reprisal after they have come forward to level an allegation.
Even in workplaces where people have been given clear expectations around what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behaviour, and where harassers are punished, women who make allegations suffer deeply destructive personal and professional consequences.
There are many dynamics at work here, but if you distill the dilemma down to its core, you have this: women suffer both from the stigma of being cast as a whistleblower, and from the blowback that inevitably occurs when men are punished.
Women who came forward before #MeToo became a global rallying cry will attest to the fact that being cast as the complainant hell-bent on revenge — a classic misrepresentation of women who have the courage to point fingers at their harassers — undermines their long-term career development.
They are ostracized, even by other women in their organizations. The more severe the punishment dealt out to harassers, the more acute the retribution faced by victims.
It’s a vicious cycle where those women who come forward are punished, which in turn discourages other women from coming forward, which perpetuates the abusive behaviour.
This fear of retribution is very real, and very current.
A woman at the centre of allegations against former deputy minister Rick Mantey — who was fired with cause after it was determined that he had sexually harassed a co-worker — remains concerned that speaking publicly will put her current and future career aspirations at risk.
Consider as well that political staff in the Tory government recently underwent training on harassment, to ensure that everyone was aware of what was appropriate behaviour, and what kinds of words, gestures and attitudes were offside. According to some of those who underwent the training, women were cautioned about lodging complaints because of the sad reality that those who make allegations of harassment almost always are punished more than those responsible for the harassment.
Even though the fear of retribution is real, not reporting incidents of sexual inappropriateness surely cannot be the answer that we’re seeking.
It is this dilemma that is prompting some opinion-leading women to ask whether zero-tolerance policies, elaborate reporting mechanisms and the escalation of punishment will ever achieve a new culture that allows a woman to come forward with concerns and leave in a better state than when she arrived.
In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, American activist and author Sofie Karasek urged policy and lawmakers to take an entirely new approach to dealing with complaints of sexual harassment and assault. "We cannot jail, fire or expel our way out of this crisis," wrote Karasek, a co-founder of End Rape on Campus. "We need institutional responses to sexual harm that prioritize both justice and healing, not one at the expense of the other."
Karasek went on to describe how society "needs more options" for dealing with cases of harassment, abuse and assault. She largely turns to the alternative of restorative justice measures that are in effect in some jurisdictions around the world.
She concludes that if the #MeToo movement has shown us anything, it is that "our systems for dealing with sexual injustices are broken. The question is whether we are using this moment to construct better ones."
In Manitoba, although it seems that the governing and opposition parties have their hearts in the right place, they are both largely ignoring that the problem is much more complex than they have described. And that the solutions we really need to end the cycle of harassment and assault cannot be solved simply through reporting of the original incidents.
Politicians in Manitoba have made a good start. But they’re going to have to dig a lot deeper to reach a place where retribution is a thing of the past.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.
Updated on Saturday, February 24, 2018 at 9:22 AM CST: Photo added.