When Lisa LaFlamme said she was “blindsided” after being let go from her job as anchor for CTV National News, many Canadians – from industry figures to viewers – suggested that discrimination was the root cause of the dismissal.
While Ms. LaFlamme’s former employer claimed her ouster was a business decision to reflect “changing viewer habits,” emerging details – that Ms. LaFlamme’s boss had raised questions about the appearance of her grey hair on TV; that there had been several formal reviews about problematic workplace culture in the newsroom – have continued to raise eyebrows.
The situation has prompted discussions of ageism and sexism in the workplace, leading many to wonder: How can you know if something is discrimination or not?
“The definition of discrimination in the eyes of the law versus what you experience are different,” says Tamisha Parris, who runs diversity, equity and inclusion consulting company Parris Consulting in Vancouver.
If people feel their coworkers and bosses are limiting them because of gender, age, skin colour, religion, disability or another factor, they have to prove it.
“It’s sometimes hard to put your finger on it,” says Stacey Dakin, president and chair of the board for advocacy organization Lean In Canada. “There are human factors involved.”
Women in discriminatory situations can find justice, sometimes at the workplace level, or even in court. In 2021, for instance, a woman in B.C. was awarded $15,000 because she was discriminated against due to her gender and marital status.
At the same time, sometimes people can perceive discrimination where there is none, says Ms. Parris, especially if they’ve been a victim to it in the past.
“We all come with different experiences and traumas,” she says.
According to a 2020 Statistics Canada survey, 10 per cent of women experience workplace discrimination based on their gender, gender identity or sexual orientation – in contrast to 4 per cent of men. A 2022 survey funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Program found that two in five racialized people have experienced race-based discrimination at work, rising to one in two for Black people.
Ms. Parris recalls an experience when she was 23. A man from a partner organization that she’d already spoken to over 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 junior or because she was Black. She complained, but nothing happened. “I went to work somewhere else because I didn’t feel supported.”
Laura Williams, founder and managing partner of Williams HR Law in Toronto, says women often face discrimination on a micro level.
“You have your microaggressions, your micro invalidations,” she says. “They’re often so subtle they’re barely perceptible. But when you’ve been on the receiving end, you know.”
These microaggressions might include being spoken over in meetings or kept out of the loop.
Discrimination is more blatant – and easier to track – when a particular group is treated differently in a workplace. For example, Ms. Williams recently worked on a case where a group of women were expected to do office tasks such as refill the photocopier and unload the dishwasher, while men in the same roles were not.
Ms. Dakin says another clue comes from the overall situation at your workplace, including management and culture.
“Who is in the leadership positions?” she says. “A lot of companies are building equity, diversity and inclusion practices in the workplace, but are [these practices] respected? What is the water cooler conversation?”
If you think you are being discriminated against in a workplace due to your age, gender, ethnicity or other factor, start documenting, say Ms. Williams and Ms. Parris. Be clear about what was said and done, with times, dates, locations, who was involved and who observed it. Seeing things written down can help you analyze the situation.
If you’re unsure if what you’re experiencing is discrimination, trust your instincts, says Ms. Dakin.
“Check how you’re feeling and what’s going on inside,” she says. “Validate those feelings with [someone] you trust.”
That person could be a friend, a colleague or an HR lawyer. Ideally, it should be someone who is objective and can help you understand how you’re feeling and how the actions you’ve documented may appear to others.
Then, quietly seek out colleagues who will vouch for you – perhaps they’ve been victims of similar behaviours.
“Make sure you’re well allied within your workplace, so you have support internally,” says Ms. Williams.
To seek justice, you can launch a complaint through your HR department or via someone in management. Your company might deal with the issue and offer an apology and anti-discrimination training for the team. If they can’t resolve it, they may launch a formal investigation.
If your workplace doesn’t take your claim seriously, you can launch a human rights complaint through your provincial commission or via the courts.
According to a U.S. study, just 19.9 per cent of claims related to sex discrimination made through the country’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were successful between 1997 and 2018, while 15.6 per cent related to colour and race were resolved in favour of the complainant.
“A lot of people just go out and find a new job,” says Ms. Parris.
Ms. Dakin points out that deciding whether or not to launch a complaint can be a major dilemma for individuals. If your complaint is not successful, it can have ramifications for your future at that organization. If you suffer in silence, the discriminatory behaviour may continue.
“You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t,” she says.
Companies need to find better ways to both resolve complaints and support the people who speak out, she adds.
For her part, Ms. Williams is optimistic – some of her clients are successful in their complaints and many workplaces are taking action against discriminatory behaviour.
“We have more investigations and organizational reviews than we’ve ever had,” she says.
Organization such as Lean In Canada provide educational materials and training activities that can help companies educate themselves and prevent discrimination from happening.
And while many people are still upset at how a high-profile woman such as Ms. LaFlamme was treated, Ms. Parris says the story has shown companies that they need to change.
“It’s been a huge opening to conversations around women in the workplace,” she says. “The fact is, this happens, but we’re working on it.”
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