Alison Redford would not be expected to be a 'nice lady' if gender roles were reversed

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Just a few days after International Women's Day and the launch of Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg's girl empowerment campaign, #BanBossy, a jolting piece of news brings women's minds back to the topic of gender equality.

Veteran Calgary Tory MLA Len Webber announced his resignation from the Alberta Progressive Conservatives' caucus, looking teary-eyed and heartbroken, saying he was stepping down because Premier Alison Redford was a bully, disrespectful, and simply 'not a nice lady'.

After watching the press conference video of his resignation, instinctively I began to empathize with Webber. For a split second, I considered the possibility that Premier Redford may be a total you-know-what, since this is what 'not a nice lady' was meant to convey.

But as a woman familiar with feminist literature and contemporary sexism, I also managed to stop myself from doing what society does all too often to women in power: criticize and judge them harshly in ways it would never judge their male counterparts for similar behaviours.

Don't get me wrong, I still empathize with Mr. Webber. I also don't disregard Redford's lavish travel expenses. But I asked myself the question: is this really about Redford being a horrible director, or is it that Webber can’t handle working under a strong-willed woman? 

What if the roles were reversed?

It's hard to think of this situation without considering what society would think if the genders were reversed. What if Webber was female, and she resigned publicly because Redford is 'not a nice man?’

I imagine that such a resignation would be tantamount to political suicide for any woman who is working at the level of an MLA. Webber would have not dared resign with such an emotional display, because she would have well known that it would be used against her to explain why she's not fit to hold a position of power. You can almost hear the humiliating messages that would be fired in her direction, along the lines of:  "If you want to work in politics, toughen up.”

If Premier Redford was a man and behaved 'not nicely,' he would probably not only have been tolerated, but his 'forcefulness' and 'assertiveness' would be admired by his colleagues.

Women in senior positions being seen as aggressive

By dubbing Redford as "not a nice lady", Webber has just shown that women are still expected to be a certain way -- "nice". The pressure to not get angry and use soft language is omnipresent in women’s lives. From the workplace to the home, if women want to avoid being seen as bossy, pushy or ballbusters, we have to craft our words carefully, to take a stand while not hurting other peoples' feelings. 

The pervasiveness of these subtle, modern-day sexist standards, creates impetus for campaigns such as Sheryl Sandberg's #BanBossy movement, which aims to encourage young girls to embrace their strength and trust their leadership.

It is one of the greatest oversights of modern society that people say women in developed countries are liberated, yet punish them for being ‘bossy’, 'bitches' or ‘aggressive’ when they work at the levels of directors, CEOs, professors, mayors, Premiers and Prime Ministers.

Evaluating what’s really happening, and what to do

As much as it is important to hold women in positions of power to the same professional standards as men -- especially when public accountability is a fundamental part of their role -- it's important to keep an eye out for the possibility that claims like Webber’s could be a mask for contemporary sexism.

Webber should have expressed his dissatisfaction in a way that doesn’t invoke Premier Redford's gender. It is precisely this view that reveals the sexist belief that a woman is expected to be 'nice'.

Reading MLA Webber's story is not only my own heartbreak – over the inequality of standards for men and women – but is shared widely by my female peers. In our quest to patiently educate men (and women) about how deeply patriarchy pervades in our language and interactions, we face disappointment, anger and tears. Yet, even then, women must resist the urge to throw back at men messages such as "Toughen up, Webber”, so we can avoid upholding the very same values we are trying to break down.

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