The Ghomeshi trial is all the rage right now in the criminal world, and rightly so. The case goes to the very heart of many issues that are commonly debated when discussing sexual assault. However, the issue mainly picked up by the media in this case is, “can we prove that consent was present at the time of the alleged assault given the complainant’s behavior following the incident?” More specifically, if the complainant “goes back” to the alleged perpetrator, is his/her credibility damaged to the point where they cannot be believed about the incident in question? Whether this is the case or not, it got me thinking about my own behaviour when I was met with workplace harassment and discrimination as a female lawyer.
I have worked in about ten different legal offices since 2007, which include government, large corporate firms, boutique firms, and now as a sole practitioner. At some points along the way, as you may have guessed, I encountered harassment and discrimination. I have sat in firm meetings where a senior lawyer unashamedly stared at my chest for what seemed like forever. I have heard that same lawyer say that he would have been appointed as a judge had he only been wearing a skirt in his interview, since, according to him, the province was only looking to hire women so that they could appear more diverse (God forbid we women take jobs away from the members of the old boys club and increase diversity in the judiciary.). Neither I nor the other lawyers (also women) said a word. Yet, we all went back to work the next day.
Another senior lawyer advised me that if I were to ever take on a sexual assault trial that I should always do a preliminary inquiry so that I can re-traumatize the victim to ensure that she/he would recant their statement. Yet, I completed my work term at his firm despite my distain for this tactic.
While in court one day a senior male counsel whom I had just met asked me where I was articling. When I told him, he ran his fingers through my hair and said he was just checking for gray hairs. Yet, in the hallway of the courthouse, I would always say hello. After all I worked in a small town with one courthouse, and I wanted to have good relations with co-counsel.
In each of these cases, I “went back,” not forever, but for a time. As a woman, I’ve learned from birth that there are just some normalized behaviours of sexual harassment/discrimination that I am just meant to deal with. It’s a burden that women still face in most fields, but especially so in areas that are still dominated by the “old boys club.” If I quit every job where I was sexually harassed or discriminated against, I might just be living on welfare for the rest of my life (joking…kind of).
This is a problem of competing priorities. I consider it a priority to stand up for myself and other women when facing discrimination, especially in the work place. However, this competes with my needs to have my principal sign off on my articles, to continue to bring in a salary to pay my bills, to not be seen as “that girl” who is “overly-sensitive” to such issues so that other counsel are not willing to work with me. Unfortunately, the more vulnerable one is, the less control they have over which priority reigns supreme.
So my question is, if I were to complain about these incidents, would anyone hold it against me that I “went back”? Would my credibility regarding these incidents be under scrutiny because I didn’t quit my job right then and there? Would I be told that I must have consented to these behaviours because I still continued to work at these places and go to social functions with these people and said a friendly “hello” to them in the hallway? I know this is different from what’s going on in the Ghomeshi trial, but it got me thinking about how people, women in particular, are meant to respond to workplace harassment and discrimination.