Sep 10, 2013

What the UBC rape chant scandal says about women in the Canadian economy

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The news of UBC Sauder Business School students chanting about rape of underage girls during a FROSH week event has generated much outrage. As it should.

While the chant might seem like an isolated incident, it is not. The recent rape chant scandals in UBC and in St Mary’s University in Halifax are evidence of systemic sexism that permeates our educational institutions from coast to coast. Sexism doesn’t end with Orientation week, and people don’t naturally grow out of it when they leave university.

Sexism is pervasive in our workplaces and across all levels of society

All women are affected. From women at the very margins of our society, like the Aboriginal women murdered on Picton’s farm just outside Vancouver, and those dying along the Highway of Tears in Northern BC, whose experiences led to the (largely ineffective) Missing Women Inquiry, to middle class women, like those who work in the RCMP, close to 300 of whom have filed a class action suit over sexual harassment, uncovering a disturbing culture of sexism and bullying, all the way up to Harvard Business School’s female students who are told not to bother trying to get into venture capital firms because the male partners don’t want them there, to our own Premier who gets asked if she’s a MILF on the radio.

According to statistics from the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 Canadian women will experience sexual assault or domestic violence in her lifetime.

Sexual assault, domestic violence, workplace discrimination – these are different expressions of the kind of systemic sexism we need to be talking about. Sexism that robs women of their dignity, shuts them out of positions of decision-making and power, and fundamentally undermines our economy. From the medical costs and the cost of work missed as a result of experiencing violence (estimated by my colleagues at the Toronto office of the CCPA to $1.9 billion per year), to the unknown costs of foregoing the expertise and knowledge of half of our population.

Only 35% of all management positions in Canada are held by women. Only 23% of senior managers in Canada are women. (Source)

The higher up you go, the lower the proportion of women becomes. Only 21 of Fortune 500 executive officers are women.

A quick look at the global finance industry or the high tech industry reveals blatant sexism. While some folks are eventually forced to resign over sexist comments they have made, most recently this guy, the reality is: these kind of people don’t “scale the corporate ladder–tweeting all the while!– without some sort of systemic acceptance (or at least tolerance) of [their] attitudes.” (as pointed out here)

And these are just the examples I can point to off the top of my head because my partner and many friends work in the tech industry and keep me updated on the sexism they encounter.

The problem with the university rape chants

Even more disturbing than the chants themselves is the clear evidence that many students and student leaders don’t seem to understand why chanting about rape is a problem. The student organizers, now forced to resign, clearly believed the chant was ok as long as students were discreet about it (see for example here):

Frosh co-chair Jacqueline Chen said the chants have been repeated privately in past years.

“We had problems a very long time ago with the cheers being public in a sort of way and the dean seeing,” said Chen, in an interview with The Ubyssey. [That would be the same Dean that claims the Administration has never heard of the chants before!!!]

She said CUS takes great lengths to ensure that the offensive chant remains out of the public’s ear.

“We do get them to remove it (from social media) if we do find it … That’s a big thing for us,” she said.

The problem isn’t that the rape chants became public. The problem is that students consider chants about underage rape, about committing sexual violence on minors, is a legitimate bonding activity. These chants communicate clearly that girls and women are not considered to be as important as men, that they have no agency over their bodies (“N is for no consent”) and that they are sexual objects for the enjoyment of man. This is the part that makes the chants inappropriate.

What UBC Sauder, the broader University community and society as a whole needs to make clear to everyone involved that the kinds of attitudes the chants reveal are not acceptable, and they are not welcome here. Because women are people who have the same rights as men. Women are your colleagues, not your sexual objects.

Unfortunately, the message that UBC Sauder School of Business is currently sending is, we’ll accept this attitude as long as you keep it discreet. Nobody is being held to account, as is eloquently pointed out here.

What kind of leaders are our universities producing? These are our future managers, employers, business leaders and politicians, and we have a responsibility to teach them that women are people and not sexual objects.

Canada’s progress on gender equality has stalled since 2000

Yes, five of our provinces have female Premiers. A woman has just been elected to chair the Board of Canada’s largest bank for the first time in history. These are welcome developments. But they are still very much exceptions that prove the rule.

In fact, the evidence shows that Canada is losing ground on the promise of equality for women and men.  If this is news to you, it may be because public funding for research on gender equality has been cut sharply over the last few years. We have seen the closure of many women’s rights organizations recently.

Women still get paid less than men. Even when they work full-year, full-time, women earn less than men. Median earnings of BC women working full-year, full-time were $43,000 in 2011, about $12,700 per year (or 23%) less than the median earnings of BC men working full-year full-time. The gap is virtually identical for Canada as a whole, women’s median earnings are $12,600 or 23% lower than men’s. (You can look at the numbers here.)

Women graduate university in higher numbers than men. Then they end up getting lower paid jobs.

At the current rate of progress, a recent CCPA report estimates it will take Canadian women 228 years to close the gender pay gap.

To what extent is sexism behind the gender pay gap? Probably to a very large extent.

How do we effectively challenge systematic sexism?

Our schools, our universities, our workplaces and our entire economy must become inclusive organizations, where every man and woman can reach their full potential and is encouraged to do so.

Sexism is a barrier to the full participation of women in society. It needs to be acknowledged, and it needs to be proactively addressed.

It will take a cultural change. And we all have a responsibility to act.

We set the standard with our own behaviour and with the behaviours we condone. We have to make it clear through our actions that women are people, that they are just as important in our society as men, and we have to do it in all the places where we teach social norms – on the playground, in the classroom, at university, in our workplaces and around the dinner table at family events.

It won’t happen overnight, but it is not an intractable problem. We’ve done it before. We did it with drinking and driving, which only 30 years ago was commonplace and now it’s becoming socially unacceptable in this country. We can do the same with sexism.

Every time we witness sexism, we have an opportunity to take a stand. We have an opportunity to say, “hey, this is not acceptable here.” And just like with bullying, every time we turn a blind eye or walk past without saying something, we are subtly encouraging the behaviour and becoming part of the problem.

Businesses and other organizations need to take a serious look at their culture. Who do they hire, who do they promote, who do they train and what kind of environment do they create for women? When sexual harassment complaints are brought up, are those who’ve spoken out chastised for doing so (as has the case with the RCMP class action suit)?

Governments must take a look at the programs they fund and cut funding from, and consider how our budget choices help or hinder the quest for gender equality. (For more on gender budgeting, see this.)

Harvard Business School’s recent gender equity experiment shows what a proactive, full-on attack on sexism in a university program looks like. For their class of 2013, they changed not just the curriculum, but also rules and social rituals to give women the opportunity to succeed. And the women succeeded. Both female students and young female faculty members benefitted tremendously from the initiative. The UBC Sauder Business Schools might consider launching a similar initiative.

The recent UBC and SMU rape chants should serve as a wake up call to the fact that we still have a long way to go to gender equality, and should spur us all to action to address systematic sexism across all levels of society. We’ll all be better off for it.

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