The Women’s Resource Centre is not at all surprised by the recent conversational frenzy around recent comments made by national security minister Wayne Caines. This is what happens. There is an outcry around an incident and as soon as the dust settles, we all go right back to our comfort zones.
So the question now becomes, “what did all of that accomplish? And are women any better off as a result of it?”
While we certainly do not condone what was said, we see the problem as far larger. Let’s for a moment go farther up the stream to see why the water is not flowing freely.
We agree that sexism is no longer acceptable, but we submit to you that the real issue is not just about what happened, but why it happened?
It is about how we think and why sexist comments are all too acceptable in our society, period.
It is about what our societal norms are and what is and is not OK to say and to do?
We are focusing on the minister because he is the one who said it, but if we are to be honest about the matter, this is not at all unusual. So the cliché word now has become “sexism” or “sexist”. We like to use these words and many times without clear understanding of what this all actually means. Most concerning is the ignorance around how much a part of our everyday life it really is, and how it impacts everyday lives in Bermuda, particularly for women.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, sexism is defined as prejudice or discrimination based on sex; and is especially prevalent against women. Sexist behaviour includes our attitude and behaviour towards someone based on their gender. This may include a sexist remark, sexist advertising, sexist decision-making in hiring practices or responsive behaviours. A sexist may believe that women are unsuited for traditional male roles and should not be upper-level managers, politicians, preachers, etc. It is important to note that sexism can also be used against men who fulfil traditional female roles such as nursing, teaching or stay-at-home primary caregivers for children.
So where did this all begin? Society’s view of women and the roles and responsibilities of men and women are greatly influenced by patriarchal systems that have been passed down through generations and still exist today. A patriarchy, described by ancient Greek patriarchs, was a society where power was held by and passed down through the elder males. When modern historians and sociologists describe a “patriarchal society”, they mean that men hold the positions of power and have more privilege: leaders of social groups, a boss in the workplace, and heads of government. Thus the different positions of women and men are influenced by historical, religious, economic and cultural realities. And disparities between genders has largely to do with equal access to health, employment and education, and freedom from the threat of violence in all its forms (Ripa International). Therefore, it is true to say that discrimination against women is about power and control.
We see this faux pas as a pivotal moment and opportunity for all of us to embrace the truth that we live in a sexist society and to endeavour to understand how we can change it.
Our response has to be an individual and a collective response. We each have to take responsibility for our own thoughts and then actions. The truth is that men and women have two very different experiences in the world, and we need to ensure that men not only understand what sexism is, but that they learn how to exercise their power — to support women and to ensure that they are safe from sexual harassment and gender inequality.
Movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp have caused a wave of social change in the world. These movements have encouraged women to let their voices be heard, companies have implemented policies, and victims have shared their stories in solidarity, which is great. It may take years to see real change in how women, and men, are treated by those who wield influence over them. However, until we get there, if you experience sexism, be aware of your options:
• Document everything
• Take notes
• Tell someone
• If you have access to a professional human resources department, meet with them
• Even if you think you will not get help, get your complaint on the record
• Contact the Human Rights Commission and submit a formal complaint if necessary
• Also, at your workplace, check to see if your company has a formal sexual harassment policy — if they do not, suggest and become a part of creating one
We do not believe that Bermuda needs another women’s forum or study on women’s issues. There is data, albeit not cohesive, and several excellent studies have been done, including the Reports on Women in Leadership, The History of Women in Bermuda, The 1997 Task Force on Women and even the establishment of a Women’s Council in 2010.
Especially concerning is that Britain has extended to Bermuda its ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, with the extension taking effect as of March 2017. We have an existing treaty, organisations in place that can deal with the issue of discrimination against women that already exists. To shift the paradigm, we need to implement these guidelines, which will include the education of our society.
It’s time to act, to do something — we have talked about and debated this way too long.
We are all stakeholders in causing the change necessary for women to be recognised as other than sex objects and subservient to men. We truly see this as a clarion call for Bermuda to earnestly look at the benefits of full participation of women in the workplace, the marketplace and in our community.
This can only point the way to a future that is both prosperous and fair. For everyone.
• Elaine Butterfield is the executive director of the Women’s Resource Centre