When Lisa LaFlamme said she was “caught by surprise” after being fired from her job as a host for CTV National News, many Canadians – from industry officials to viewers – suggested that discrimination was the main cause of the firing.
While Ms. LaFlamme’s former employer claimed her firing was a business decision to reflect “changing viewing habits,” details surfaced — that Ms. LaFlamme’s boss had raised questions about the appearance of her gray hair on television; that there had been several formal reviews of problematic workplace culture at the editorial board – continued to raise eyebrows.
The situation has sparked discussions about ageism and sexism in the workplace, leading many to wonder: how do you know if something is discrimination or not?
“The definition of discrimination in the eyes of the law is different than what you experience,” says Tamisha Parris, who runs the Vancouver-based diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy Parris Consulting.
If people feel that their colleagues and bosses limit them because of their gender, age, race, religion, disability or other factors, they need to prove it.
“Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on it,” says Stacey Dakin, president and CEO of the Lean In Canada advocacy group. “There are human factors involved”
Women in discriminatory situations can find justice, sometimes in the workplace or even in court. For example, in 2021, a woman in BC was awarded $15,000 for discrimination based on her gender and marital status.
At the same time, Ms Parris says people can sometimes perceive discrimination where there is none, especially if they have been victims of it in the past.
“We all bring different experiences and traumas,” she says.
According to a 2020 Statistics Canada survey, 10 percent of women experience discrimination in the workplace because of their gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation — as opposed to 4 percent of men. A 2022 survey funded by the Canadian government’s Future Skills Program found that two in five racially-minded people have experienced racial discrimination in the workplace, rising to one in two for black people.
Ms. Parris recalls an experience when she was 23 years old. A man from a partner organization, with whom she had already spoken on the phone, came into the office. He then refused to shake her hand or work with her.
“I was devastated,” she says, unsure if he snubbed her because she was too young or because she was black. She complained, but nothing happened. “I went to work elsewhere because I didn’t feel supported.”
Laura Williams, founder and managing partner of Williams HR Law in Toronto, says women often face discrimination at a micro level.
“You have your microaggressions, your microinvalidations,” she says. “They are often so subtle that they are barely noticeable. But if you’ve been on the receiving end, you know.”
These microaggressions can include speaking up in meetings or staying out of the action.
Discrimination is more evident – and easier to trace – when a particular group is treated differently in the workplace. For example, Ms. Williams recently worked on a case where a group of women were expected to do office tasks such as refilling the copier and emptying the dishwasher, while men in the same roles did not.
Ms. Dakin says another clue comes from the overall situation in your workplace, including management and culture.
“Who’s in the leadership positions?” she says. “Many companies are building practices for equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but are doing so [these practices] respected? What is the water dispenser talk?”
If you think you’re being discriminated against in the workplace because of your age, gender, ethnicity or some other factor, start documenting it, say Ms. Williams and Ms. Parris. Make it clear what was said and done, with times, dates, places, who was involved and who observed. Seeing things written down can help you analyze the situation.
If you’re unsure whether what you’re experiencing is discrimination, trust your instincts, says Ms Dakin.
“Check how you’re feeling and what’s going on inside you,” she says. “Acknowledge these feelings with [someone] you trust.”
This person can be a friend, a colleague, or a human resources attorney. Ideally, it should be someone who is objective and can help you understand how you are feeling and how the actions you are documenting might affect others.
Then take your time to look for colleagues who will stand up for you – they may have been victims of similar behavior.
“Make sure you’re well-connected in your workplace so you have internal support,” says Ms. Williams.
To become active
To get justice, you can make a complaint through your human resources department or through someone in management. Your company could look into the issue and provide apology and anti-discrimination training for the team. If they cannot resolve it, they can open a formal investigation.
If your employer does not take your complaint seriously, you can file a human rights complaint with your provincial commission or through the courts.
According to a US study, between 1997 and 2018, only 19.9 percent of sex discrimination lawsuits filed by the country’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were successful, while 15.6 percent were those related to color and race were decided in favor of the complainant.
“A lot of people just go out and look for a new job,” says Ms. Parris.
Ms Dakin points out that deciding whether or not to lodge a complaint can be a major dilemma for individuals. If your complaint is unsuccessful, it may affect your future with this organization. If you suffer in silence, the discriminatory behavior can continue.
“You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t,” she says.
Businesses need to find better ways to both resolve complaints and support the people who speak up, she adds.
For her part, Ms. Williams is optimistic – some of her clients are successful with their complaints and many establishments are taking action against discriminatory behaviour.
“We have more investigations and organizational reviews than ever before,” she says.
Organizations like Lean In Canada offer educational materials and training activities that can help companies educate themselves and prevent discrimination.
And while many people are still upset about how a high-profile woman like Ms. LaFlamme was treated, Ms. Parris says history has shown companies they need to change.
“It was a big opening for conversations about women in the workplace,” she says. “The fact is that’s happening, but we’re working on it.”
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