A crowd of voices came together at the City Hall steps in St. John’s Saturday to speak out on sexual harassment in the workplace.
The gathering was organized by the feminist collective SPAAT (Smash the Patriarchy: An Action Team) although several people from various groups and backgrounds gave short talks to the 50 or so people who gathered.
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“This is not a small-town issue and it’s not a Newfoundland issue,” SPAAT member Carmella Gray-Cosgrove said speaking to media afterwards.
Although an ever-present issue, this particular rally against sexual harassment in the workplace was sparked by complaints of behaviour that Spaniard’s Bay firefighter Brenda Seymour brought to the public eye recently. Seymour’s experiences were really just a conduit to draw attention to the larger problem that speakers at the gathering said exists across the country in all types of environments.
Renee Sharpe spoke to the group of her own exposure to harassment. A welder, Sharpe told how she was subjected to such behaviour while in school and on the job. She said part of the reason it’s still happening to so many people is because of those experiencing it are shot down and shut up. That creates the silence barrier.
“We’re really shot down. We’re squished down. We’re really encouraged to not speak about our experience because people don’t want to change their behaviour,” said Sharpe.
“It definitely did shut me up. It definitely did push me out in some ways.”
Break the silence and you break the pattern of tolerance for such behaviour was one message spoken loud and clear at the rally. There’s also the belief that somebody going through such an ordeal won’t feel alone when it is an open topic for conversation.
“It’s like an unspoken permission when government (or) when companies and corporations aren’t speaking out against this,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe found support and went on to finish her welding education and training and she works in the field today.
While she says she has seen improvements in groups and companies who won’t tolerate such behaviour, sexual harassment is still prevalent.
Another SPAAT representative, Nicole Boggan, pointed out that part of what can make it so difficult to address or approach people about is it’s not a comic strip, with good guys on one side and bad on the other. People who act inappropriately towards someone in the workplace or in another environment can be people who have otherwise won our affection.
“We really need to face the reality that (sometimes) these are people we love,” Boggan said.
Separating the parts of such deep-rooted cultural behaviour is a daunting task, but several people pointed out that Seymour managed to bring national attention to the topic.
Every incident that gets talked about adds a voice to breaking the silence, they say.