Beisan Zubi has worked on Parliament Hill in research and communications capacities. She is currently a social media specialist at an international research institute.
My heart should have warmed last week as I watched the Daughters of the Vote take over the Canadian Parliament, speaking about inclusion and representation and standing up to the hateful discourse that’s been dividing our society. I would have loved to tell them each how wonderful their interventions were and how inspiring I found their strength. But if I’m being honest, I would have also warned them to stay away, that Parliament Hill, in my experience, was a fundamentally unsafe place for young women.
The few years I worked on the Hill in my mid-twenties was a crash course in sexism and sexual harassment. The toxic male culture is something most female Hill staffers can tell you a lot about — valuing male voices over women’s, aggression and anger being rewarded, disparaging or dismissive gendered comments (the amount of “sweeties” I got was baffling, considering I’m not even sweet) — but an issue I’m still grappling with years later is what can actually be done about sexual harassment when there are so many reasons why victims don’t report it.
If you remember a few years ago, allegations of sexual misconduct by MPs rocked the Parliament Hill news cycle. However, few female staffers I knew were surprised that this had happened. We were just surprised that it was actually being talked about so openly.
I was sexually harassed in my several years working on and around the Hill more times than I can count, but never reported a single incident. Here are a few reasons why:
Because it happened where alcohol was involved: This is actually a caveat for most of the stories that follow. Parliament Hill events, a somewhat essential work component for many public-facing staff, happen in the evening and mostly off the Hill. It blurs the line between what’s work and what’s social in a way that deeply disadvantages victims.
Because no one saw: Who wants to get into a he said/she said conflict? Most of the times I can remember of instances of clear sexual harassment, including unwanted attempts at kissing, touching, and more, we were either alone, or in a busy room where everyone was focusing on something else. It makes it harder to know if you have backup if you need it. Because everyone knew: Some MPs were well-known for comments to female staffers that spanned the gamut of sexual harassment. Everything from ‘oh I’d leave my wife for a girl like you’, to comments about our looks or bodies, to lingering hugs and lewd jokes. The several times it happened to me, I never said anything because the MP was well-liked, and it was just seen as ‘his thing’.
Because he worked for my party: When you work in politics, you learn that it’s like a war that doesn’t ever stop (all part of the toxic masculinity I described). I don’t how how bad something would have had to have been before the severity of someone’s actions would outweigh the mentality of not wanting to do anything to hurt my troops. I still wonder what that threshold would have been for me.
Because he worked for a rival party: An MP aggressively hit on me at a reception, making comments about my name sounding like the French word ‘bisous’ — kisses — and asked to “test that out”. I asked a staffer to stop looking at my breasts and he told me if I didn’t want him looking, I should have worn a different dress. Both these men worked in opposition to me, and the same effect of always feeling you’re at war can make you think no one would believe your account if everything in politics is just for the political win.
Because it happened so fast: I was at a bar sitting with a mix of staffers and MPs and a friend wanted to take a picture of me and an MP. I happily agreed and posed. His hand went around my waist and settled on my bum for a second or two. I wonder if you can see the look of surprise on my face in the picture. I convinced myself it was an accident (but older, wiser me knows that most men tend to know the whereabouts of their hands).
Because I didn’t work there anymore: I left the Hill to do my MA in Toronto but I went back to Ottawa often, where I grew up and my parents still live, and was quickly reminded of the so-called ‘Ottawa bubble’ culture that permeates this city. One night, sitting at a bar with some former colleagues (all men), one of them pulled up a picture I had posted recently to social media of my friend and I at a Blue Jays game, taken from behind to show that we were both wearing Jose Bautista t-shirts. The man, who held a management position at the time, proceeded to loudly announce to the table that it was a great picture of my ass, and passed his phone around the table urging all the men to look at it and comment on my body.
He was a journalist and I worked in the media department: Aside from the general hit-ons one specific incident stands out: I was sitting with a group of journalists, diplomats and staffers on a patio after work, and I went inside to use the bathroom. As I exited the bathroom, an incredibly intoxicated, much older journalist, who was sitting at my table but I’d never met before that night, was walking towards me. He put his hand up, in what I thought was a high five I attempted to meet, but then slowly, looking at me with blurry eyes, he open-palmed my left breast. I froze, shocked for a second, pushed his hand off a second later, and went to sit back down at the patio. I got my bill and left shortly after, and the journalist reintroduced himself to me on at least two different occasions. I felt like I couldn’t say anything because maintaining good relationships with members of the media was a part of my job.
None of this is meant to detract from what happened last week in the House of Commons, when women occupied all the seats. I can’t understate how significant an event that was, to me included. But if it took me leaving the Hill to know how a professional workplace actually treats young women, the culture in the ‘Ottawa bubble’ seems fundamentally at odds with these women’s messages.
So how do we fix this toxicity and fully realize the safe and empowering place for women we saw on Wednesday? I don’t think that the responsibility is on women to eschew our rationalizations and risk potentially harming our careers, reputations and relationships by reporting these harassments. The onus must be on men to address and stop these actions when they see them, both in others and, most importantly, in themselves. Until they start doing that, there will be an endless stream of reasons why women won’t report or speak out about their mistreatment, and the Hill will remain a place I’ll warn young women about.