It’s hard not to feel cynical these days. Every time we turn on the evening news or browse social media, it seems as if yet another accusation of sexual harassment is being revealed. The sheer number and frequency of the accusations and the diversity of the aggressors, from producers to actors to comedians to politicians to politicians who used to be comedians – the whole thing is so ridiculous, it would be funny if it weren’t true.
On Saturday Night Live (SNL) this past weekend, female cast members, along with guest host Saorise Ronan, mocked the notion that the public finds these revelations so shocking. In a musical skit entitled, “Welcome to Hell,” the SNL women joked that harassment isn’t new. What’s new is the fact that everybody’s suddenly talking about it, and a lot of people are upset. But as Ronan quipped, a lot of people seem more upset that “House of Cards is ruined.” But what’s ruined for women, the cast sings in this musical parody, is: “Parking and walking and Uber and ponytails. Bathrobes and nighttime and drinking and hotels and vans.”
What the comedy of SNL was really pointing out was the fact that women learn to factor the possibility of harassment into their daily lives from an early age. And far too often, the onus is put upon women to protect themselves from things that simply shouldn’t happen. For example, young women shouldn’t have to worry about turning their back on their drink at a bar. Yet here we are, teaching our daughters that exact defensive move. And if they don’t pay heed and something happens, they’re made to feel that they’re partly to blame because they should have been more careful.
As the Head of a girls’ school, I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about what to say to our girls about the present state of the world beyond our walls. How do I prepare them to lead with confidence, knowing that strong female leaders are often seen as bossy? How do I teach them to speak assertively, knowing that females who speak up are often accused of being strident? And how do I encourage them to proudly embrace being female, knowing that how they dress on a Friday night, may be interpreted by some as permission to touch? In other words, what skills do our girls need to navigate a society with an evident power imbalance and a culture that normalizes small aggressions against girls from an early age?
What do I mean by normalizing small aggressions? I mean that from their earliest years girls are taught to overlook the little things – the off-colour comments, the brush of an arm, or the wink of an eye that makes them feel uncomfortable. Think of the commonplace phrases a young girl may hear growing up. Things like, “Oh, she’ll be a real looker one day,” or “I don’t know how any of the boys in her class get any work done with her sitting beside them.” These ostensible compliments aren’t compliments at all. They’re creepy commentary on a young girl’s appearance and sexuality. And they shouldn’t be voiced. But voiced they are, and girls are taught to smile appreciatively and not complain. Even when others in the room experience a moment of discomfort, everyone typically just moves on. After all, it was only a harmless comment.
Moving into her adolescent years, the so-called harmless comments become so-called harmless acts. The cat calls as she walks down the street, the unwanted grope at a school dance, the sexist joke that’s shared with her by a bunch of guys. She learns to walk faster down the street, brush the hand away on the dance floor, and laugh along with the boys telling the joke. Because if she doesn’t, she’s accused of being stuck up, or uptight, or humourless. Or worse, she’s accused of always being so serious – and who wants to hang out with that?
And finally, when she’s all grown up and enters the workplace, the problems persist. I don’t need to detail here what can happen at the worst of times because we’re hearing about it in the news. But there are far more benign examples to ponder. Women who feel excluded from the upper echelons of Bay Street by the old boys’ network, women who make less money than their male counterparts, and women who are discouraged from entering traditionally male-dominated occupations because the work environment is so hostile.
So little by little, a young girl becomes a young woman who learns not to speak up. She learns to look the other way, to laugh it off, and let it go. She remains silent, shares an all-knowing look with her sisterhood, and moves on. But when something truly egregious happens – something so evidently wrong that she needs to speak up – she may find herself unable to because she hasn’t learned how. A lifetime of doubting the value of her lived experience leaves her mute.
So here’s what I’m thinking. I propose we change the rules of this dysfunctional game. Let’s make it easier for young girls to speak up by refusing to normalize the small assaults on their personhood that begin in childhood. Imagine the change that would happen if we helped girls reject the innuendos and the unwelcome compliments that are hurled at them from an early age. Imagine the power in calling out the unwanted actions for what they are. Wrong. Unappreciated. Unnecessary. Insulting. Hurtful. And damaging.
We need to help girls learn to speak up from an early age in order to build the muscle of her voice. Just like any muscle in the body, strength comes from use over time. It comes from exercise and practice. Every girl needs to know how to say, “Please don’t sit so close,” or “I don’t appreciate that word,” or even, “Do you know you sound sexist when you say that?” Every girl needs to build up her voice little by little, year after year, so that she will be strong enough to speak up against the big things that life will surely throw at her later on.
How do we teach girls to do this? It’s a tall order to expect a young girl to assert herself in a stressful situation. Who’s going to help her learn to use that voice? Who will model for her what it looks like to shut down sexist behaviour?
I was privileged to hear Michelle Obama speak last week in Toronto. During her inspiring talk, she emphasized the need for boys and men to stand up for the rights of girls and women. She reminded the audience that the fight for equality cannot be left to women alone. Boys and men must be partners in the cause.
I want to encourage all the boys and men in our school community to champion the rights of our girls. I want the brothers and fathers, uncles and grandfathers to show our girls what it looks like to speak up for what’s right. Reject the locker room banter. Refuse to laugh at the sexist jokes. Call out disrespectful behaviour that’s disguised as typical “guy stuff”. Advocate for equal treatment of the women in your workplace.
If the men in our community model what it means to stand up for the rights of girls and women, while our school provides a safe and nurturing place where each girl can practice using her voice, I believe we have the makings of a two-pronged approach that will result in meaningful change. And who knows, if we remain united in doing the work together, tomorrow’s news reports may be a lot brighter.