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(January 24, 2002, Gazette)

Help warm a chilly climate

Lori YetmanLori Yetman

Since May 2000, I have been MUN’s sexual harassment advisor. When I am asked what I do, I now hesitate and inwardly grin – a reaction of some sort is inevitable. I’ve heard everything from, “you’re a waste of time,” “your position is so needed,” and, most commonly, “can you tell me how I can get sexually harassed?” to a comment from an elderly man who exclaimed, “Oh well, myself and my wife are way beyond that now, so I won’t be needing your services.”

Only 34 members of faculty, staff, and the student body have contacted my office to request individual consultations regarding complaints of sexual harassment. With numbers as low as this, one would think that Memorial’s Sexual Harassment Office is an unneeded expense. The chilly climate of this campus, however, is more likely revealed in settings that people associate less with “getting someone in trouble” – for example, during a classroom presentation, after a sexual harassment awareness session, over a coffee, in the hallways, or within the context of a casual conversation. In non-threatening, familiar locations, people tell me their stories, safely beginning their inquiries with statements such as “what if ...?” “a friend of mine told me ...,” “nothing can be done now, but ...,” or “is it sexual harassment when ...”?

Seeking advice on a term paper, a student visits her professor during office hours. She becomes exceedingly uncomfortable when a pornographic screensaver appears on his monitor. She leaves his office before getting the necessary assistance.

In a male-dominated learning environment, female students take complicated routes to class in order to avoid leering and sexualized, inappropriate comments from male peers. They also change the way they dress, hoping that it will make a difference.

A gay student feels alienated and fearful as both professors and students engage in homophobic humour in his classes and labs. He wonders what they’ll do if they discover he’s gay.

In the classroom, a professor discusses his love for women’s breasts. A student hides behind her clipboard, hoping that her breasts do not become the focus of his attention.

A group of male students on the steps of the University Centre loudly express that all faggots should be shot.

These are samples of the kinds of stories I now hear on almost a daily basis. Stories told by members of the campus community who are looking for simple ways to approach people whose behaviours range from irritating and insensitive or offensive and hurtful, to hostile and threatening. Their common concerns are generally for the perpetrators – their peers, colleagues, co-workers, supervisors, students, professors, friends, or acquaintances. They want the sexual harassment to stop – but they want it stopped quietly, painlessly, without backlash or repercussions. They think about the consequences of taking action, asking not only “what will happen to me?” but also “what will happen to him/her?”

On Nov. 23, 2001, the new University Wide Procedures for Sexual Harassment Complaints were unanimously approved and signed by all campus constituencies. I can now reassure members of the campus community that there are new, kinder mechanisms in place to resolve complaints of sexual harassment. I would, however, like to reassure them of more.

As sexual harassment advisor for the St. John’s Campus, the Marine Institute, and Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, I am now recognizing my limitations. I cannot address these issues alone. The stories have become too frequent, too serious – indicating a presence of sexism, racism and heterosexism that requires the attention and involvement of all who work here. Like other major educational institutions across Canada, Memorial’s climate can be quite chilly. And one person, in one position, doing one-shot presentations to primarily arts students and faculty is not going to warm the climate of three campuses. Although I have taken creative steps to ensure that people tune in to my sexual harassment awareness sessions, through, for example, peer theatre, I cannot physically present to everyone, everywhere. We all have to take a role in warming Memorial’s climate – otherwise, when I do enter your workplace or classroom to discuss respectful working or learning environments, I will be ineffective. How can I advise students, faculty or staff that their behaviors and attitudes may be inappropriate, when, all around them, the behaviors and attitudes are tolerated and accepted?

A dangerously held misperception is that issues of gender and sexual harassment are irrelevant unless a department, discipline, or service is directly linked to social issues/concerns. Sexist, racist, and heterosexist attitudes, however, are prevalent in our society – and thus on our campus. They have to be discussed, addressed, and confronted across all disciplines, within all departments.

These attitudes impact our behaviours – the ways we interact with people. They impair people’s ability to be productive in the workplace and in the classroom. In order to work or learn, we have to feel that we belong, that we are respected. On a campus that is becoming increasingly multi-identity and multi-cultural, sexism, racism, and heterosexism are counterproductive. We need to know, as do our students, that we are, or will be, working with people of different identities. It’s inevitable, no matter what the field, that men will work with women, and women with men; that we will be working and learning with people of different sexual orientations, religions, ages, degrees of ability, and racial/ ethnic identities. And what we need to know, in order to be productive, is how our attitudes impact our relationships with our co-workers, colleagues, supervisors, and peers.

We need to learn how to practice respect and empathy, to confront attitudes and behaviors that are disrespectful, and to cultivate work and learning environments that are inclusive. I am thus seeking the help of the entire campus community to create a respectful campus. There are proactive faculty in the arts, as well as in psychology, who work towards making their classrooms safe for women, gays, and other marginalized groups by not allowing or practicing sexism, racism or heterosexism, and by being attentive to the ways they teach. These kinds of initiatives can occur in all disciplines and departments.

It is thus my intention to start a campus-wide chilly climate committee. The goal of such a committee would be for members to educate other faculty and staff from their departments about hostile environment issues – how to dispel hostility in the classrooms and labs; how to create environments that are not discriminatory; how to confront sexism/racism/heterosexism – as you see it, etc. There must be ways of dealing with issues of sexual harassment and discrimination that go beyond this office – responsibilities that can and should be assumed by all who work at MUN. If you are interested in participating on a chilly climate committee, or would like to immediately begin warming the climate of your department, classroom, or lab by inviting me to speak, please contact my office at 737-2015, or loriy@mun.ca.

It’s relevant. It’s necessary.

To view the new University Wide Procedures for Sexual Harassment Complaints, go to: www.mun.ca/sexualharassment.