Horrible bosses, too: women can perpetuate toxic masculinity when they get the power to do so

    Jan 27, 2021

    CALGARY—“We have an excellent Governor General right now,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in September 2020.

    There is never a good time to support an abuser, especially publicly.

    Last July, CBC broke the story of how the governor general, Julie Payette, created—and presided over—an allegedly abusive work environment: “The sources say Payette has yelled at, belittled, and publicly humiliated employees. They accuse her of throwing tantrums in the office and, on one occasion, tossing an employee’s work aside and calling it ‘shit.’” According to the revelations, she also got her BFF into the act like Regina George in Mean Girls: “Payette’s secretary and longtime friend, Assunta Di Lorenzo, is also accused of harassing employees and calling some ‘lazy’ and ‘incompetent.’” Both of them resigned Jan. 21, amid the release of a report that is said to confirm some of these accusations.

    These management character traits imposed on the workplace culture by Payette coincide with the features of toxic masculinity feminists always rendered destructive. This is the cultural infrastructure of the Canadian workplace, one that hasn’t changed much since inception. In a 2018 article in the Globe and Mail, author Harvey Schachter explicitly states: “But the behaviours that irk us at work—the behaviours tied to bad management—do not come out of the ether or spring solely from personality. They stem from a view of leadership that, given the role men have played in our history, is tied to masculinity.” Even women can perpetuate toxic masculinity when they’ve acquired the power to do so.

    Additionally, what the prime minister did was more than just stand by his choice—he tacitly approved of Payette’s leadership methods and backed someone whose social currency was more important to him than the health and safety of her employees. This social currency and position gave her power. And in Canada, power is never held to account. Even now, Payette will receive the perks of once holding her former position she so spectacularly crashed out of, including: a $150,000 annuity for life, an expense account of $206,000 per year, not to mention a kick-ass health and benefits package. Harry and Meghan should be so lucky.

    What Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did was more than just stand by his choice—he tacitly approved of Payette’s leadership methods and backed someone whose social currency was more important to him than the health and safety of her employees, writes Erica Ifill. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade.

    Payette’s resignation is not a form of accountability, rather it’s the opposite. She got away with it.

    In fact, it seems as though working for this government is hazardous to your mental health, given that subsequent Public Service Employee Surveys have highlighted the harassment, discrimination, and bullying problems within the federal government, however no one is actually tasked with fixing them. In 2017, the Toronto Sun reported, “22 per cent of federal employees said they were harassed at work, typically by supervisors, while 27 per cent said their workplace wasn’t ‘psychologically healthy.’” Payette’s Rideau Hall, according to Maclean’s, was a known toxic sludge of abuse: “In 2018, employees largely pointed to harassment in the form of offensive remarks, aggressive behaviour and excessive control—all of which decreased in 2019. But staff now report substantial upticks in ‘being excluded or ignored’ (to 40 per cent from 30 per cent), ‘humiliation’ (to 50 per cent from 36 per cent), and ‘interference with work or withholding resources’ (to 41 per cent from 27 per cent).”

    In other words, those who could fix it knew and did nothing about it until the allegations went public.

    Granted, the public service is a unionized environment, however that still requires the complainant to put themselves, their mental health, and their economic position in jeopardy in a system that requires the victim to accuse their abuser. That is exacerbating an already-unbalanced power differential. The risk is too great and the probability of receiving justice too small. Even the system of resolution is a patina set up to protect the powerful.

    The 2017 to 2018 Annual Report to the Deputy Minister from the Office of the Ombudsman for Mental Health in Public Services and Procurement Canada, identified an enormous issue with toxic work environments: mental health. “There are other behaviours or factors that can lead to mental health issues in the workplace, including: 1. Incivility, 2. harassment, bullying and lack of respect…”. As Margaret Eaton wrote in this paper last fall, “The reality is, there can be no economic recovery without ensuring workers and their families are not just physically, but also mentally healthy.” This country is facing an unprecedented mental health crisis and while we are quick to put the onus of seeking treatment on those suffering, we don’t expect managers and leaders to take their share of responsibility for the work environments they create.

    Given that we’re in the season of the Bell Let’s Talk mental health awareness drive, one must ask, how many Bell managers are creating work environments that negatively impact their workers’ mental health? And with a prime minister that has shown support for a destructive style of leadership based on toxic masculinity, why should anyone expect better from their bosses?

    Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.