The woman who fell to Earth - The Orca
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The woman who fell to Earth

Dene Moore
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Dene Moore: The steel-skinned approach that propelled Julie Payette to the top of the Canadian Space Agency was ill-suited for a ceremonial role.

So former Governor-General Julie Payette is not a nice person, according to many who worked for her.

The woman who graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from McGill University in 1986 and a master’s of applied science in computer engineering from the University of Toronto in 1990 (her final year, then, the same one that a gunman murdered 14 women who had the nerve to study engineering at École Polytechnique in Montreal), then went on to join the Canadian Space Agency in 1992.

Payette was chosen from more than 5,300 applicants to the CSA. Her first mission to space was in 1999, when she became the first Canadian astronaut on board the International Space Station, and only the second female Canadian astronaut (of three in total) to leave the atmosphere.

According to her biography, Payette got her commercial pilot licence and studied Russian in order to prepare for her mission to ISS. In 1996, she obtained her military pilot captaincy and certification as a one-atmosphere, deep-sea diving suit operator. (Whatever that is.)

She was the Chief Astronaut of the Canadian Space Agency from 2000 to 2007.

I think we can agree that Julie Payette is, if not “nice,” certainly highly intelligent, driven, hardworking, and incredibly accomplished.

I’ve been a woman for a while now, not in the well-established minefield of toxic masculinity that is the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics world that Payette occupied, but in this world in general. Let me tell you, for the generation of girls who grew up and became women in the 1970s and 1980s, it was hard to hold onto “nice.”

Our gender revolution was hijacked and twisted into a sexual revolution. Sexual harassment in the work place was easy to come by; a key to the executive bathrooms, not so much.

I’m not excusing the behaviour reported by staff at Rideau Hall. Of 92 people interviewed, 43 said the work environment was hostile or negative; 26 called it toxic or poisoned. Under her leadership, 17 people left their roles in the Governor General’s office.

Payette is certainly intelligent enough to recognize that the steel-skinned approach that gets a women through engineering school in the 1980s and to the top job at the highly-competitive, male-dominated Canadian Space Agency in the 1990s is probably not the appropriate approach for the ceremonial governor general job. Really, why do we even continue to maintain this colonial throwback?

But it’s not rare for behaviour to be judged very differently depending on whether it’s coming from a man or a woman. Women are bossy; men show natural leadership abilities. Women are bitchy; men take charge. Women are emotional; men are well-balanced.

A study of more than 81,000 military leadership evaluations published by Harvard Business Review found significant differences in the language used to describe the performance attributes of men and women.

They found no difference in objective measures like grades, fitness scores, class standing. But when it came to subjective measures, women were assigned a significantly higher number of negative attributes.

Men were most commonly described as analytical, competent, athletic, dependable, confident; women, compassionate, enthusiastic, energetic, organized. When it came to negative attributes, men were most commonly described as arrogant and irresponsible, while women were most commonly described as inept, selfish, frivolous, passive, scattered, opportunistic, gossipy, excitable, vain, etc., etc., etc.

You get the picture.

As the authors say: “These are not just words — they can have real-life implications for employees and organizations.”

Indeed.

They are a big part of the reason that while women make up half of the Canadian population, they represent just 27 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, just shy of 20 per cent of the board members in Canada’s top 500 companies and a mere 8.5 per cent of the highest-paid positions in Canada’s top 100 listed companies, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Payette resigned in January. Given the damning report on the atmosphere at Rideau Hall during her tenure, that’s for the best.

But let’s not let this latest and most salacious chapter in this formidable woman’s career rewrite her history. I’m not sure whether the Governor General’s office will do any better next time, but certainly Ms. Payette can.

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.

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