The year 2017 has crystallized the contradictions and deep divisions that remain on the treatment of women in North America. Now is a good moment to take stock of the rules of conduct that we deem appropriate between men and women. What gender norms do we aspire to promote and follow in both our public and private lives? December 6 is a day of remembrance and action that commemorates the 14 women who were killed at the École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1989. That was almost 30 years ago — so where are we now? The answer is complicated.
On the one hand, we are witnessing a surge of women and men who are asserting their right to pursue careers free from sexual harassment. There are almost daily additions to the roster of accusations against men who have taken advantage of their positions of power over women, men and children who find themselves within circles of influence. These accusations are acts of defiance and resistance to a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace. They constitute a challenge to the tacit understandings of the treatment women should have to navigate in their relationships with men.
Careers are being cut short: Harvey Weinstein, who has the dubious distinction of launching a social movement against a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace, was fired from his own company and stripped of the accolades gathered across a lifetime of work. Kevin Spacey has been cut from a film currently in production, and Netflix is filming the wildly popular series House of Cards, in which Spacey played the lead role, without him. NBC fired the long-term host of Today, Matt Lauer, after a two-month investigation on sexual misconduct in the office. These professional and social sanctions confirm a new standard that says men cannot wield their power over women to obtain sexual favours, and if they violate that rule they must pay a heavy price.
Canada has not been immune to similar experiences. The most widespread news story to kick off a Canadian conversation on a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace was the 2016 sexual assault trial of former CBC star Jian Ghomeshi. Though acquitted in court, Ghomeshi was fired from his job and found to have violated CBC’s code of behavioural standards. Following the Weinstein story in the United States, Canadian film leaders acknowledged — and many women in the Canadian entertainment industry confirmed — that this culture does not stop at the border.
On the other hand, this year has also been one in which standards on the treatment of women have been tested and lowered. Compare the fates of Weinstein, Spacey, Lauer and Ghomeshi with that of US President Donald Trump. In Trump’s case, 16 women accusers have been brushed aside and their claims ignored (the case of Summer Zervos is still in court). Their accused lives out his presidential days in the West Wing unfazed and free from repercussions. Meanwhile Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for senator in Alabama, remains locked in a closely tied race despite allegations of sexual misconduct with women and minors. His conduct also seems beyond the grasp of social sanction. Far from reproaching him, President Trump has officially endorsed Moore’s candidacy.
Two parallel yet divergent worlds are coexisting independently: one in which women are successfully asserting their right to a workplace free from sexual harassment, and another in which ongoing sexual misconduct is condoned. Opposite norms on appropriate behaviour with women are fighting for a preeminent spot at the top of our social value chain.
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Norms are powerful tools of social order. They have the power to ensure that we collaborate without a law forcing us to do so, or a market incentive to make it appealing. Norms are the connective tissue of a society that hangs together without any other mode of control beyond reproach or affirmation. Norms are not dictated from the top down. They are negotiated daily. Whenever we hold the door open for somebody coming out of the store behind us, we strengthen principles of solidarity. Whenever we steal a parking spot from somebody waiting for it, we weaken those same principles. Norms are made and remade every day, by everybody, in every action we take.
Thanks to the democratic opportunities inherent in the construction of norms, shaping the rules that we live by is the single most accessible political decision we have within our reach. We vote for these rules in each public and private exchange. The state can and should establish minimum standards to guarantee basic rights, including legal sanctions for sexual violence, guarantees of equal pay for work of equal value, and an equitable gender distribution of government positions. These are all thresholds of equity. However, a culture of equity is not easy to regulate hierarchically, by deploying the tools of command and control. Our culture is in the hands of everyone. It is made and remade through practice.
So what do this year’s practices tell us about the norms that we will decide to live by, and how we will hold each other to account in the future? What kind of social order are we manufacturing, and where do women fit in that order, on this profoundly bifurcated path? To ensure that one norm prevails over others, citizens should of course vote with their ballots, but all should first and foremost vote with their actions in their everyday exchanges with women, whether these are in public or private spaces. It is through a continued practice of mutual respect that we can entrench one standard over another and affirm a culture of gender equity.
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