This One’s For the Ladies…. and the “real” Gentlemen

It’s not been a good week for equality of the sexes.

There’s really no suitable preface for these kind of stories, so I’ll just get right down to it:

In Halifax Nova Scotia, Dalhousie University is home to a school of Dentistry whose (male) students thought it would be a good idea to create a Facebook group entitled “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen”.

Spoiler alert: gentlemen these young men were not.

Dalhousie University: where women's value is decided by Facebook poll.
Dalhousie University: where women’s value is decided by Facebook poll.

For some god-forsaken reason, a member of this group posted a poll asking “Who would you hate fuck?” – responders were asked to vote on two options, reportedly involving female classmates. It got worse when users learned that the school administration was “on to them” and posted warnings and another poll querying members on what they should do in response to the “leak” about the posts on their group website. The CBC story also includes revolting tidbits about bikini-clad girls in photos posted to the site with quips about using chloroform on women. Hardy har har.

Across the country in British Columbia, radio host Jeff O’Neill of CFOX’s “Jeff O’Neill Show” was hosting a discussion with Global TV personalities Chris Gailus and Squire Barnes. For some god-forsaken reason, in a discussion about preparation for an interview of Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, O’Neill suggested Gailus and Barnes ask Trudeau the hypothetical question of who he would “Fuck, Kill or Marry”; O’Neill then named three prominent Canadian women – Health Minister Rona Ambrose; Laureen Harper, the prime minister’s wife; and Michaelle Jean, the former Governor General. O’Neill prefaced his suggestion with the comment that “I don’t know if listeners from CKNW are familiar with this sort of thing. But it’s all in good nature, all in good fun”. Hardy har har.

To make matters worse, another radio host in Vancouver was upset that some people were calling for O’Neill to apologize (as if that’s the least that should have happened!!); the radio host @drex commented on Twitter that “Just because you don’t find something funny or appropriate that a comedian said, it doesn’t mean you get to demand an apology”. Sigh. It should be noted, that in 2012 @drex asked BC Premier (yes, the leader of the provincial government), if it were better to be a MILF or a cougar. (FYI, a cougar is an older woman who is sexually attractive to a younger man, and a MILF stands for “Mom I’d LikeTo F…. oh never mind).

I read these stories and was struck by how obscenely obvious it was that this type of behaviour is completely unacceptable, and yet it happens every day in communities across the country. On university campuses which are supposed to be the fertile and progressive learning grounds of the next generation, and in media strongholds where one would expect that words would be chosen with gravity.

What were these men thinking? Obviously the future dentists of Dalhousie knew their remarks were offensive, otherwise why worry about leaks? And O’Neill in British Columbia was well aware that his revolting hypothetical “game” was obscene, otherwise why insist that it was “all in good fun”?

This type of behaviour is the most insidious of sexism. Isn’t it easy to dismiss the Facebook group as just the trolls of social media? And isn’t it easy to dismiss the radio host’s comments as just jokes that obviously aren’t to be taken seriously?

And yet….

When we stay silent, when we tacitly approve of these comments or excuse them as jokes or social media nonsense, we perpetuate the sexism that keeps women out of positions of authority and status and we diminish those women who have achieved prominence against all odds.

Agree or disagree with her politics, Rona Ambrose is in a position to influence the Canadian government’s position and policies on health – arguably one of the most important services a government can offer its citizens. Laureen Harper is businesswoman, an able advocate for animal rights causes across the country, a strong supporter of anti-bullying initiatives and a volunteer for a myriad of other causes. For Michaelle Jean, being former Governor General of Canada is just one among many accomplishments; a former journalist and university chancellor, most recently she was appointed Secretary-General of La Francophonie.

Rona Ambrose and Laureen Harper: The Cabinet Minister and the Social Advocate
Rona Ambrose and Laureen Harper: The Cabinet Minister and the Social Advocate
Journalist, chancellor, Governor General, Secretary-General; Woman.

But the successes of these women is beside the point. A woman should not have to rule the world to be immune to the ridicule, dismissal or just plain apathy of the average man. Yet even these women, despite reaching the pinnacles of their careers, must deal with being women first and accomplished professionals second.

It’s not just overtly sexist college students or imbecilic radio hosts whose comments expose the ongoing inequality between the sexes. The average man reveals it in a million ways every day; even men who otherwise are staunch supporters of the strong women in their lives.

I came home from work today, as the primary breadwinner in our family given that my husband is retired. My lovely husband who is endlessly supportive of my career and the career choices I make that sometimes keep me away from our family and our home. In no way would I ever suggest that my husband tries to keep me down or diminishes my accomplishments.

And yet I came home today and my husband mentioned a story he’d seen on the news about Hillary Clinton. His first comment about Hillary was not about her history as a lawyer, or Senator, or author, or candidate to run the most powerful nation on earth; his first comment was a judgement of her attractiveness. Never in the ten years of our relationship have I heard him mention a male politician first and foremost by the way he looks.

This is what we must face. By “we”, I mean we as a society. This is what Emma Watson was talking about in her inaugural #HeForShe speech at the United Nations. We all must become aware of the ways in which we diminish women rather than build them up.

By no means is my husband on the same level as the Dalhousie male dental students, or Jeff O’Neill in British Columbia. But his offhand remark is reflective of the underlying attitude that many of us have, men and women, which perpetuates the inequality between the sexes.

Warren Buffett once said he attributed his success to the fact that he only had to compete against half the population. In a sense this remains true today. But examples like we saw this week confirm that it’s time to speak out and insist on true equality. It’s time to unequivocally refute the dental students and radio hosts of the world who think that gender discrimination remains the “acceptable” off-colour joke. It’s time to celebrate the achievements of women whether we agree or disagree with their politics or business style and judge them on merit rather than looks or weight or hair-style.

This week was a bad week for equality of the sexes in Canada. But tomorrow can be better.


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