09/28/2012 05:10 EDT | Updated 11/28/2012 05:12 EST

We Don't Need Rona Ambrose to Represent Women


Suppose a private member's bill calling for the nationalization of Canadian banks became the subject of a free vote in the House of Commons. And suppose then the minister of finance voted in favour of it? Might there be some blowback from the big banks? Think a ferocious, career-ending whirlwind directed at the minister for supporting it. The damage it would cause to the economy makes such a move unthinkable, of course.

But that, in many respects, is what happened this week in the House of Commons when the minister responsible for the status of women, Rona Ambrose, voted in favour of a motion to have a parliamentary committee revisit the question of when life begins. Many saw the vote as the opening salvo in an effort to unwind the long-established principle of a woman's right to choose, and a terrible betrayal by Ambrose, who should now be called the minister in charge of turning back the clock.

None of this was terribly surprising, since women seem to have been coasting on autopilot when it comes to protecting the rights we have gained, much less advancing the cause of equality and fairness going forward.

The campaign to reverse the right to choose is a cornerstone of the Republican party election platform in the United States. GOP vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan is on record as opposing abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Republicans clearly did not see this as a negative in the current election. And while Senate Republican contender Todd Akin initially sparked a firestorm of controversy in his own party with his bizarre comment about something he called "legitimate rape," now that polls are showing he still has a shot at victory in November, those same voices of indignation have become more muted.

But nowhere has the effort to roll back time been more shocking than in Canada, where a majority of the governing Conservative party's MPs appear to think it is now appropriate to place parliament and all the power of the state between a women and her doctor. They claim they wanted a committee to look at when life begins. That might be tad above their pay grades, since so many politicians seem to have a congenital problem recognizing the truth when they see it.

But the chipping away of the public consensus between women and society extends far beyond the medical clinic. The workplace still sees its share of mind-boggling abuses. A recent focus group survey of 426 female RCMP officers showed that most are afraid to report incidents of sexual harassment and bullying on the job because they don't have faith that their complaints will be taken seriously. Typical of what so many have experienced with sexual harassment, these women believe it will be they -- not the subjects of their complaints -- who will ultimately be punished. They are not alone. Around the world, sexual harassment remains an epidemic in the workplace, leaving many women scarred and victimized not just by the event itself but by its long-term aftermath.

I talk regularly with women who have experienced sexual harassment. In one respect, Ambrose's apparent abandonment of women is not surprising. Many women report that the first to desert them after they file a harassment claim are their female colleagues and friends who don't want to be tainted, so the feeling goes. But what is truly staggering is the almost universal feeling that these women suffered more by reporting sexual harassment, and the retaliation that followed them even as they attempted to rebuild their careers, than from the actual incident itself. Many say they would never have reported these incidents if they could have known the outcome beforehand. Governments and public institutions are often the biggest offenders.

Recently, I was astonished to discover that the Ontario government's workplace discrimination and harassment prevention (WDHP) policy does not apply to women outside the public service who are applying for a job there. It only protects current employees, thereby creating a situation where two women applying for the same position in the Ontario government can be treated entirely differently. One is protected by the anti-harassment policy; the other is not. So much for fairness on the part of the policy-makers who set the rules for the rest of the province's workplace.

When I brought this glaring dichotomy to the attention of senior government officials, including Ontario's minister of finance, the response was a thundering silence. Not even the Ontario Women's Directorate, which is funded by taxpayer dollars to advance the cause of women in the workplace, could summon up its voice. And, just to show the world that it really is stuck somewhere back in the Mad Men era, the Ontario government still allows its hiring panels to be composed entirely of men. Can the return of pipes and cigars in the interview room be that far behind?

It has long been accepted that when it comes to the health and careers of women, governments will stay out of the doctor's office and keep harassment out of the workplace. But as recent events have shown at every level in the public sector and in the highest echelons of political decision-making, it is now government itself that can be the greatest threat to those protections.