The Canadian flag flies covered in darkness at the top of Parliament in Ottawa

Is Parliament Hill unfriendly to women?

Parliament Hill workplace goes under the microscope in wake of MP allegations

By Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – A vivid discussion is unfolding around Parliament Hill about the culture of this most unusual of workplaces and whether it is unfriendly to women.

The suspension of two Liberal MPs and an anonymous former parliamentary intern’s account of harassment, shared with the National Post, sparked the soul-searching. The perspectives on the issue are as diverse as the women who work or have worked around the still male-dominated halls of power.

NDP MP Megan Leslie notes that power is a huge factor in the Parliament Hill workplace — between MPs and staff, from MP to MP and between politicians and journalists.

“Add to that, we’re not with our families, we’re away from our support systems for the week, we’re lonely,” said Leslie.

“It is an incredibly intense environment. All of that means that issues around harassment, policies around harassment, need to be in place all the more.”

Leslie said Parliament Hill is decades behind other workplaces in terms of tolerance of sexist and sexualized comments, which she says she gets on a daily basis.

“One of my colleagues has long hair, and she gets touched every day. Every day, a male colleague says, ‘Oh your hair is so pretty,’ and touches her,” said Leslie.

“You know, she has the right to do her job as an MP without being touched. It would never happen to the minister of Justice, the minister of Defence.”

One MP from another party, who asked to remain anonymous, said the problem with tolerating sexist language or jokes is that it can “set the stage” for harassment.

“Have I been the recipient of inappropriate comments? Yes, absolutely, but I’ve always seen it as my job to set the ground rules and say, that’s not acceptable,” said the MP.

“On the other hand, I don’t know how someone who is 22 or 23 years old would deal with that.”

Candice Malcolm, a former aide to cabinet minister Jason Kenney, said she has nothing but positive things to say about her Parliament Hill experience.

“I think it’s good that this stuff is coming out and it’s leading to a conversation. I think it’s healthy for people to be aware that sometimes there are problems,” said Malcolm, Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“I was very fortunate in my position … it was a very respectful office. There were a number of strong women who worked there already.”

Some think the debate is happening because the 2011 election saw an influx of a substantial number of younger, female MPs in the Commons, challenging the thresholds of tolerance for sexist or inappropriate behaviour. Liberal MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti, who face undisclosed allegations, were the subject of complaints by two female NDP MPs.

“The more women have access and voice, the more the culture needs to shift and I don’t think it has shifted quickly enough,” said Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice, a group which promotes the participation of women in politics.

Equal Voice began a campaign and Twitter hashtag in April called “Respect Her” in an effort to address a “culture of casual sexism.”

Said Peckford: “In order for us to achieve our goal to get more women elected, we need to collectively demonstrate a spirit of respect.”

Sheila Gervais, a Liberal staffer in the 1980s and former party executive, said she experienced a range of unwanted behaviour from men she encountered in her political work.

She said change is hard to achieve as long as women still only make up a quarter of the MPs in the Commons.

“It’s a vicious circle. Until you get more of them there, you’re not going to change that place,” said Gervais.

“Women will change it, if they are there in appropriate numbers, but many of them do not want to go there because of that male-dominated and oriented culture.”

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