Jennifer Berdahl: A tale of two women who exercised their professional independence

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      By Jennifer Berdahl

      Jody Wilson-Raybould’s story has triggered memories of professional trauma for me, like watching Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony last fall triggered memories of sexual trauma for many women. The way Wilson-Raybould has been treated represents a pattern of pressure applied to women who dare assert their professional independence, voice, and decision-making power. Most cases just aren’t made public. 

      Wilson-Raybould and I were each welcomed to our professional appointments (as Attorney General of Canada and as Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Gender and Diversity at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, respectively) with publicity and fanfare that celebrated diversity and the goodness of the White men who put us there. But when those men realized they couldn’t control how we carried out our professional duties, everything came crashing down. 

      Each of us got in trouble for exercising our right to make independent judgments in our professional capacities. Wilson-Raybould decided to not overturn the Public Prosecution Service director’s decision to proceed with criminal prosecution against SNC-Lavalin. I decided to analyze the unexpected departure of my university’s president through the lens of my scholarship on diversity and leadership. 

      Each of us received repeated episodes pressure, from the top “good” man on down, to change our minds and rescind our independent professional judgment. 

      Each of us then told our stories, with detailed timelines and facts backed by notes, records, and witnesses. Mine led to an independent investigation that corroborated my story and concluded that my academic freedom had been violated. I hope an independent investigation is granted in Wilson-Raybould’s case. No doubt it will corroborate her version and interpretation of events. 

      Each of us had broad support (outside the inner circle of powerholders and those beholden to them) for the principles we stood by and our willingness to speak truth to power. 

      Each of us watched as the “good” men who disrespected us and our professional judgments stubbornly refused to take responsibility for their behaviour, to acknowledge the wrong done, or to apologize. Neither could simply bring themselves to say, “I’m sorry that pressure was put on you. It was wrong. It won’t happen again. Here’s what I’ll do to make sure of that. I support and will protect your right to do your job.” Instead, they worked their inner circles to create spin, damage control, and place editorials that portrayed us as neophytes who don’t know what we’re doing or as ungrateful, disloyal, and selfish destroyers of good men. 

      Each of us ultimately lost what we thought were our dream jobs—Attorney General and my named professorship at Sauder. 

      This is not just a Laurentian Elite play and abuse of power; it’s a hegemonic one. We know how the “big boys’” play the game and we don’t like it. Not everyone is willing to publicly endorse higher principles but ignore them in private and covering it up. Not every underdog appointed to a position of authority will kneel in perpetual gratitude and obedience to those who appointed them to make themselves look good. Jane Philpott is right: “There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.” 

      Because it's 2019 and International Women’s Day: if professional women, from academics to attorney generals, are punished for independently exercising their professional judgment and expertise, we have a long way to go. For the good of everyone, and our democracy.

      Jennifer Berdahl is a professor at the University of British Columbia. This article originally appeared on her blog. Her areas of academic research include gender and diversity in organizations, power and status in groups, ostracism, harassment and bullying, and work-family interface.