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Emma Teitel: Green Party invokes feminism in defence of Elizabeth May

At the root of #MeToo is abuse of power, so it's natural that it would extend to workplace bullies in general. But the notion put forward by the Green Party that Elizabeth May is being unfairly targeted because she is a woman should give everyone pause.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May speaks at the National Press Theatre, in Ottawa on Monday, August 22, 2016. Elizabeth May says she will not step down as Green party leader while an independent investigator looks into allegations of bullying from three former employees. May says she is grateful for the messages of support she has received.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May speaks at the National Press Theatre, in Ottawa on Monday, August 22, 2016. Elizabeth May says she will not step down as Green party leader while an independent investigator looks into allegations of bullying from three former employees. May says she is grateful for the messages of support she has received.

Elizabeth May and Mariah Carey: Unless you’re an active member of the Green Party who counts Glitter among her favourite films, these women probably don’t spring to your mind at the same time. And yet they should.

May and Carey, believe it or not, have something in common. They are two of the only high-profile women to face accusations of workplace misconduct in the fallout of the #MeToo movement. Carey stands accused of sexually harassing a former male bodyguard (an accusation given limited attention in the press because when you’re an alleged female predator, sexism works in your favour).

On the other hand— Elizabeth May, the face of the Green Party, stands accused of a different kind of misconduct: plain old-fashioned bullying. Earlier this month, the Green Party leader championed victims of workplace misconduct in Canadian politics. Today, however, she is an alleged perpetrator of misconduct in her own right.

In a recent story in this newspaper, three former Green Party employees accused May of bullying behaviour, including, writes reporter Alex Ballingall, “yelling at employees and putting them down in front of their colleagues.” May denies these accusations and has asked her party to launch a formal, independent investigation into the claims.

What does this have to do with #MeToo, you might be wondering, a movement that appears to concern itself exclusively with sexual misdeeds? The answer is that #MeToo isn’t at its heart just about sexual abuse of power, but abuse of power, period. Bullying, shouting at and demeaning one’s subordinates — this behaviour is central to pretty much every major #MeToo workplace incident in the news, from Harvey Weinstein’s plummet from the top to Albert Shultz’s. Things you don’t often read in statements from alleged harassment victims? “When he wasn’t trying to grope me in the elevator, he was a kind and generous employer.”

Many of the superiors implicated in #MeToo aren’t just alleged creeps. They’re alleged tyrants.

It’s natural then that a movement that began implicating male bullies who sexually harass their employees would expand to implicate workplace bullies in general. My hope is that one of the myths eradicated as a result of #MeToo is the popular idea that there is merit to bullying subordinates, that shouting at colleagues and treating them like crap serves some greater purpose and is essential to productivity in business, or to a stellar performance in the entertainment world. We know this isn’t true.

According to Harvard Business Review, citing a study by the Harvard Business School in 2014, “leaders who project warmth — even before establishing their competence — are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill.” In 2012, organizational psychologist Robert I. Sutton told the New York Times that shouting in the workplace can be harmful because “when people are upset they process information at a more shallow level.” In other words, it’s hard to focus when somebody is yelling at you.

It sounds simple enough. Work hard and be nice to people. Yet the myth of the brilliant bully rages on — probably because you can’t make a sensational, hit reality TV show about a CEO or a head chef who is even-tempered and gets along swimmingly with most people.

I have no idea if May fits the bully description, or if she is a firm but fair boss falsely accused by three bitter ex-employees. But I do resent the notion put forward by the Green Party itself that she is being unfairly targeted because she is a woman. (It’s important to note that two out of three of May’s accusers are themselves women.)

“A man with these qualities is admired for his leadership,” the Green Party said in a statement in response to allegations against May. “A woman is portrayed as overbearing and bullying. These outdated gender stereotypes have no place in 21st-century Canada.”

Again, May might be totally innocent of all claims made against her. But the statement above reads to me like a political party’s attempt to co-opt feminist ideology in order to make excuses for its leader’s allegedly cruel behaviour. Like Mariah Carey, May, a woman accused of workplace misconduct, is in the unique position of being able to use sexism to her advantage to deflect blame. This is done via a defence I like to call the “I’m not a bitch — I’m just a strong, outspoken woman.”

Often this defence is 100 per cent honest.

It’s not exactly news that women are mischaracterized for sexist reasons as bitchy and bullying when they are in fact just doing their jobs. But at the risk of annoying some of my feminist peers, I think it’s important to note that sometimes, this isn’t the case.

Sometimes, like men prone to shouting at subordinates, women are just bullies. And as an outspoken woman who is not a bully, it really ticks me off when unkind women evoke feminism to justify their rotten treatment of others. I don’t know if May is one of these women.

But any true proponent of gender equality should meet the leader’s denial of wrongdoing in the same way they meet the denials of wrongdoing pouring in daily from men in positions of power: with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Emma Teitel is a national affairs columnist.

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