On Thursday, September 14, when I first read the social media post regarding the comment by Meaford Mayor Ross Kentner, at a Heritage Advisory Committee Meeting held on September 13, I was immediately shocked and dismayed. Then embarrassment, disbelief and anger took hold. How could a mayor make such a sexist comment, in the workplace, in the 21st century?
The comment under discussion took place at the end of the meeting, which lasted about three hours and 15 minutes. The Mayor’s comment was, “…in the interest of these ladies, who all have probably a dinner to cook for somebody. I want to wrap this meeting up.” What decade and century are we in?
I quickly shared post on Facebook because the Mayor is our elected representative and I knew it would be of interest to community members and I wanted to learn their reaction. There were a variety of strong reactions which I have attempted to address in this letter. I am well aware that differences of opinion will remain but it is my hope that after reflection and discussion some opinions will change. The opinions expressed here are mine but many supporting comments tell me that I am far from alone expressing these thoughts.
Mayor Kentner’s comment immediately took me back to my early career days in the 1970s when the women’s movement was advocating for gender equality in society but especially in the workplace. I was a part of that struggle throughout my 34 years in education and will continue as long as I live. Like women of my generation, I personally experienced sexist jokes, stereotyping, harassment, put downs, discrimination regarding opportunities for career advancement, a poisoned workplace environment, and a culture that by virtue of traditional attitudes and actions openly excluded women in a myriad of ways. Unequal pay between the sexes, in many workplaces, still remains a discriminatory reality. Some traditional attitudes questioned the right and capabilities of women to be in or to succeed in the workplace. Typical beliefs restricted female roles to wives, homemakers, chief cook and bottle washers, child bearers, primary caregivers of children, parents and husbands.
Mr. Kentner’s comment clearly perpetuates many of these outdated stereotypes, restrictive and discriminatory attitudes towards women. His comment puts the women who were in the committee room back into the kitchen, a place which is totally irrelevant to their workplace responsibilities which they were carrying out on September 13. He pulled the rug out from under them by diminishing their professionalism. Where has he been during the last 60 years?
Like everyone, the mayor is a product of an era. Some say that he should be excused for having a senior moment. Some say it was an “off the lip quip…that wasn’t thought out.” However, we all deserve better than excuses. His formative era was a toxic patriarchy with rigid male and female roles that worked to confine and hold women back from full and equal participation and contribution to society. Women had little if any choice but to be a homemaker. They were socialized to believe this was their assigned station in life. The issue is the availability of choice to work or not whether you are male or female. I am not disparaging the homemaker role. However, being raised in an earlier era is no excuse for demonstrating harmful attitudes today. All of us have the capacity and responsibility to learn and change. Success is dependent on being a lifelong learner.
Importantly, it is incumbent on anyone in a position of responsibility, especially in a public leadership position, with power over employees, to grow with the times and be in touch with current societal attitudes and values.
Complaining that women don’t have a sense of humour has been used for decades to cause doubt, undermine and dismiss a woman’s thoughts and feelings. Some people think those who are offended should “lighten up”, and “laugh it off.” These comments are an attempt to put women in their place so men can get away with hurtful, sexist behaviour and comments. Women know how demeaned, frustrated and angry they feel in their gut when experiencing sexism. It is not a male prerogative to dictate how a woman should feel or react. Sometimes women laugh because the people around them are and they are stunned by the shock of a sexist joke/comment, or they want to be seen to go along so not be labeled as too sensitive or having no sense of humour. Afterward I and others have cried and raged and wished we could take the laughter back.
Some say Mr. Kentner is a kind gentleman who did not intend to insult anyone.
I was privately contacted by one of the women after making the posts. Yes they were offended. What about the feelings of any woman who works for the Town of Meaford? Certainly the online comments to my post show that many women and men also took offence at the Mayor’s comment. The Mayor represents all of us. It is not kind nor gentlemanly to patronize. He demeaned us all. Cooking dinner and assigning that role to the “ladies” in the room is stereotyping and unequal treatment which wrongfully assumed that men don’t cook.
Will the Mayor admit and learn from his mistake? How will he demonstrate his learning to staff and the public? Actions speak louder than words but words are a beginning. Should he apologize? Definitely. To whom? Men and women but especially the women in that room and all who work for the Municipality of Meaford. Will that be enough? Some people think the Mayor should resign. I think we need to hear from the Mayor before making that judgment. The tone is set at the top. Is that the way our municipality wants to be viewed?
Norah Beatty, Meaford