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Let's Prevent Harassment By Ending the Reign of 'Nice'

11/24/2014 05:42 EST | Updated 01/24/2015 05:59 EST

Growing up, we heard the nursery rhyme "what are little girls and boys made of?", "Sugar and spice and everything nice for little girls" and "snips and snails and puppy-dog tails" for the boys, sending a message around gender expectations from a young age.

In today's society, we debate whether being "nice" affects women's ability to rise to senior levels of leadership. A female leader is often labelled too nice or too aggressive if she is more assertive. Some commentators argue that being nice is a competitive advantage in seeking leadership roles, others that it holds women back. My own experience is that being respectful, having empathy and dealing with tough issues, worked better than being nice all of the time.

Similarly, being nice plays a role in sexual and other harassment.

Speaking to a young woman recently who had been sexually harassed, then grabbed by a co-worker in a restaurant, I realized that she had tried to deal with him by being nice. She did not want to cause problems, thus, even when she told her harasser to stop, he did not take it seriously. Other young women in her restaurant simply left their jobs after being harassed, with no action taken by their boss. For women, relationships matter and there is a fear that strong action will disrupt relationships and harmony. Power imbalances in the workplace and a lack of confidence in redress mechanisms result in fear of speaking up against a harasser.

Trying to be nice, with no sense of empowerment, takes its toll on women who sometimes feel partially to blame for what happened, despite playing no role other than showing up in their workplace.

As I listened to the story told by this young woman, memories were evoked of my days teaching in a university and working in the Public Service where other women and I had to face sexual harassment from sometimes a boss, client or co-worker. Few of us felt confident enough to lodge a complaint since we were convinced that doing so would derail our careers, so, we tried to deal with it by being nice. Day-to-day transactions in this kind of toxic environment are devastating, creating stress and a fear of entering the workplace. Yet, the alternatives may seem worse. One of my female colleagues did file a complaint and then a law suit. She was blacklisted and was unable to obtain a job in her field.

As I observe the media discussions surrounding sexual harassment today, the vestiges of the fear and stigma remain. Two NDP MPs have demonstrated a clear reluctance to come forward with their complaints against fellow MPs, perhaps fearing a potential backlash against them. No system exists in Parliament to process their complaints, which is clearly unacceptable in today's society. The institution that passed harassment laws applicable to everyone else neglected to make self-binding provisions. The young woman that I mentioned was expected to go back to the same workplace where her harasser had received a mere slap on the wrist, creating the likelihood that he would increase his level of harassment and take some kind of retaliatory action.

It is time to end the reign of "nice" and to recognize that both men and women suffer from this tyranny of harassment and feelings of powerlessness. If women try to be nice to avoid problems and disruption of relationships, men may misunderstand and continue the harassment or it may embolden them to continue, not fearing any consequences for their actions. This is equally true of men who are being harassed. We know that men can be and are harassed sexually, as we heard recently from another former Parliament Hill staffer. Men can feel the same sense of helplessness when the harasser is in a position of power.

Women and men need to feel confident that they can challenge their harasser or, at least, can safely lodge a complaint in a process that will respect them, support them, and not create a backlash. No matter the level of power and fame -- the allegations against Bill Cosby, for example, these inappropriate behaviours need to come to light, be stopped and the victims should not have to be "nice" or fear any backlash. Every individual has a right to freedom from harassment and all of us can speak up and condemn the behaviour.

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