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Lana Payne: 2017 — the year the silence was truly broken

The Women's March in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, has inspired a new theatre company in St. John's.
The Women’s March in Washington, D.C., January 2017. — AP file photo

Canada’s chief business executives need to get their head out of the sand, snowbank or wherever they are stuck.


Lana Payne
Lana Payne


Why? A recent survey of 153 top executives (95 per cent male) by the Gandalf Group found that 94 per cent of them didn’t believe sexual harassment was a problem in their company, yet one-third of them reported knowing of specific harassment cases in their companies.

I can’t decide if they are oblivious to the world around them or just refusing to admit there is a problem in their own backyards.

Surveys of Canadian working women found that well over half had reported being sexually harassed at work. And let’s be clear: sexual harassment is a form of violence against women.

You only have to turn on the news, listen to a female politician, talk to a woman, to realize we have a very big problem.

As author and American feminist commentator Rebecca Traister recently wrote in New York Magazine about the near-daily reports of women coming forward to expose their harassers and abusers, this is about work “and women’s equality in the workplace, and more broadly, about the rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do work because the whole thing is tipped toward men.”

It’s about workplace culture that makes it very difficult for women to report harassment — a culture that results in a fear that if they report they will not be taken seriously or believed.

The ongoing epidemic of violence against women is heartbreakingly wearing. It’s like walking in quicksand, making little headway despite incredible effort by those in the trenches — advocates, union women, female politicians and business leaders, survivors.

And as hard as this year has been in so many ways, especially for the families of women who lost their lives to violence, something did shift in 2017.

It started with the World Women’s March in January — an incredibly inspiring global movement, so emboldening that it helped to build a stage for everything that was to come afterwards.

It is why feminism became the most looked-up word in 2017, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

It helped to create the empowering space women needed to speak out against their abusers, men like Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood mogul who used his power to destroy women, to sexually harass and abuse them, and then have his lawyers pay millions of dollars to keep them quiet.

A quarter of a century ago, when I first started my activism with the labour movement, union workplace posters designed to draw attention to violence against women featured a black and white photo of a solitary woman with the words “break the silence.”

It seems for 25 years women have been doing just that, breaking the silence, on their own and for too long going unbelieved.

Then not so alone. Small groups of women, breaking the silence, speaking out against their tormentors, their assaulters, their harassers. They were supported by other women — survivors, advocates.

Too often, the justice system let them down. Victims were blamed and shamed. Why would any woman ever put herself through the injustice of our justice system? How courageous must she be? 

Most often, women suffered in silence, their sense of self-worth shattered. They may have even blamed themselves — wrongly, but such is the power imbalance between men and women in nearly every sector of society, politics, business, work.

And, yes, I know not all men. Of course not all men, but be honest: after the revelations of 2017, we know too many men with power abuse their power.

This year, it was not one woman, not two women, not three. It was dozens and dozens and dozens and hundreds of women. The dam has burst. But has the silence truly been broken?
I hope 2017 is the year it has been.

It was a year of profound resistance to male abuse of power. It was a year of women pushing back, demanding better, speaking out, and breaking their silence. Breaking the silence, though, is merely the first step.

We must also change cultures, power structures. And for the executives who think they don’t have a problem, they need to wake up and take action, because violence against women is everyone’s responsibility.

And it is men who need to understand the role they must play in making change.  Given the survey of executives, it appears the first step is admitting there is a problem. I thought we were past that, but as long as leaders have their heads in the sand, the quicksand persists.

We have a moment to galvanize women’s equality and change the conditions and cultures that perpetuate the violence. But it will take all of us.


Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.


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