06/22/2015 01:07 EDT | Updated 06/22/2016 05:59 EDT

Women Should Thank Tim Hunt and Gen. Tom Lawson For Their Sexist Comments


In recent weeks, working women have been stung hard by soundbites from the mouths of men. First came Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize-winning British biochemist who announced "his trouble with girls" at the World Conference of Science Journalists. "Three things happen when they are in the lab," he said June 8, at an event about women in science and technology. "You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry."

In home-bred misogyny, the Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson was asked by the CBC about ongoing allegations of sexual harassment in the military. His answer boiled down to boys will be boys. "We are biologically wired in a certain way and there will be those who believe it is a reasonable thing to press themselves and their desires on others," he told Peter Mansbridge.

Mad Men fans take heart: you don't need a T.V. show to watch 1950s-era sexism.

Yet while it's tempting to feel progress has stalled and we should all just go back to smoking inside, we should applaud Hunt and Lawson for doing women a favour. Their stupid remarks have exposed an often overlooked mentality held by powerful men that fuels sexual harassment in the workplace.

When we think about workplace creeps, we tend to picture that guy who grabs butts at the office Christmas party. Those dudes are real, but they wouldn't act without encouragement. Yes, there is the odd guy who would harass women even if Gloria Steinem was his boss. But most are emboldened by an ecosystem that condones sexism. It's no surprise that Hunt and Lawson work in male-dominated fields. In science, technology, politics, the restaurant business, the military and finance, there's constant reinforcement that women are second-class citizens. As a man, your colleagues laugh at your sexist jokes. Your bosses turn a blind eye when you cop a feel and your HR department isn't sympathetic toward women's "anecdotes" that could cost the company top talent. So while Hunt and Lawson haven't engaged in harassment themselves, their comments send the message that sexist behaviour is business as usual.

If Hunt's low opinion of women - I mean, girls - in the workplace wasn't insulting enough, he then latched onto a classic sexist cop-out to save himself drowning. After Hunt was forced to resign from his honorary post at University College London, he told the Guardian that he made his comments in "a totally jocular, ironic way..." Clearly, it's not his fault that in addition to being sobbing temptresses, girls lack any sense of humour.

Putting aside the fact that Hunt told a Daily Beast journalist at the conference that he was simply being "honest," his "joke" promotes misogyny in real life. Since science is something Hunt does take very seriously, maybe he'll be persuaded by a study from Western Carolina University that found "sexist humour can lead to toleration of hostile feelings and discrimination against women." If your boss cracks blonde jokes, why should you treat women with respect?

More troubling are studies from Lycoming College and the University of Granada that found sexist jokes encourage "rape-related" attitudes that can translate into actual violence or harassment. No one knows this better than Kate Burnham. The former pastry chef at a Toronto restaurant alleges that her male colleagues constantly passed off their abusive behaviour as a joke (she has filed a sexual harassment claim with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario). The 24-year-old told the CBC that if she complained after one of her chef superiors smacked her butt or grabbed her breasts, they would call her a buzzkill and treat her even more aggressively. When you make sexist remarks as a top scientist who employs young people, you create an environment that tolerates harassment.

If you're Gen. Lawson, you're not too hopeful about changing the misogynistic atmosphere in a workplace. After all, if you employ those with XY chromosomes, you're apparently lucky if they can control their impulse to hump women left and right. And if boys will be boys, then girls should do everything not to provoke them, right? Follow the logic of Gen. Lawson's comments and you land smack in the heart of Victim-Blameville, where mini-skirts lead to rape. His underlings have clearly taken note.

Statistics Canada found that one in 13 full-time female members of the Canadian Forces has been "sexually assaulted with their service," though some experts believe the numbers are much higher. A former Supreme Court judge issued a report last year that revealed the number of assaults in Canada's military has reached "epidemic levels", though most victims don't report the abuse. Maclean's ran a horrifying cover story with anecdotes from female soldiers that ranged from obscene jokes to rape. Though Lawson has since referred to his comments as an "awkward characterization," they are really just an accurate representation of how many in the military views women.

To hear those remarks from the top dog is upsetting, but not surprising. This level of rampant harassment would not go unpunished if top officials didn't hold ingrained sexist beliefs.

Some have suggested that Hunt and Lawson have been unfairly demonized online and unjustly punished in real life. They haven't been accused of any sexist behaviour themselves, beyond their words. It's unfair to skewer someone for a slip of the tongue. But to pass off their comments as "jokes" or simply unfortunate phrasing is to miss the layered way in which misogyny works. Sexist beliefs are the foundation of sexist actions.

When men at the top level of in their field suggest women aren't equal, they send a strong message to employees. Make that off-colour joke. Grab whatever you want. You won't be blamed, because boys will be boys.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen


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