5 min

Workplace discrimination

Many queer Canadians battle bigotry at work

Kyle Scanlon left a job because of workplace harassment. Credit: Krys Cee
In 1999, when Kyle Scanlon announced to bosses at his Toronto media job that he was transitioning into a man they were “surprised and confused.” At the time there was very little information available about the process, and his co-workers didn’t know how to handle it. But what he faced next was far more than simple ignorance.
Discrimination in the workplace can sometimes be “hard to put a finger on exactly,” says Scanlon. “Suddenly my work was scrutinized. Co-workers were making life so difficult.” Despite needing to be in a certain desk to do his job, Scanlon was repeatedly forced to move work stations. People stopped talking to him. The final straw was when a co-worker told him point blank to “watch his back.”
“It’s an issue of climate,” says Scanlon. “Playing games.”
But the result was a feeling of harassment that led to Scanlon leaving the job. This, he says, is an example of “constructive dismissal,” when a worker is forced to leave a job because it’s been made unbearable – a common occurrence for Canadians transitioning genders, even in 2011.
A recent Angus Reid poll that asked queer Canadians about workplace discrimination found that 93 percent describe their employer’s overall attitude toward queer people in the workplace as tolerant; 72 percent feel attitudes in the workplace have improved over the past five years; 34 percent of gays and 40 percent of lesbians have experienced discrimination during their professional lives; and 28 percent of respondents who have not come “out” at their workplace say they fear negative consequence.
These statistics, though far from ideal, have been described in the Canadian mainstream media as an indicator of success for sexual minorities in the Canadian workplace. Some point out, however, that like many projects that purport to reflect the experiences of the queer community, the results of this poll seem to be missing entire groups of people.
For example, despite the Angus Reid survey being a poll of opinions within the entire LGBT community, the results are broken down into the categories of gay, lesbian, bisexual men, and bisexual women. No “T.”
Scanlon would like to see surveys that say they are LGBT actually mean LGBT. In his role as a researcher with the Transpulse project — which investigates the impact of social exclusion on trans people in Ontario — he has found that 13 percent of respondents report they’ve faced firing or constructive dismissal as a result of being trans; 15 percent think prejudice could have been a part of their dismissal; 18 percent have been turned down for a job because they are trans; and 17 percent have turned down a job due to lack of a trans-positive environment.
These stats are a big reason that “while 71 percent of trans people have at least some college or university education, about half make $15,000 per year or less,” and only one third of those surveyed by Transpulse had full-time jobs. So while the trans community has seen some marginal improvements over the last five years, says Scanlon, “it’s not showing itself.”
Brent Chamberlain is the director of Pride at Work Canada, a non-profit that works with 35 large organizations across Canada, such as Loblaws and the Bank of Montreal, to promote inclusive work environments. He says that while “LGBT is a nice acronym . . . organizations need to understand that it is not a solid group.”
According to Chamberlain, as the atmosphere around being gay has shifted for the better and individuals feel they can be more open in the workplace, it’s bi and trans workers who have been the target of higher incidences of intolerant acts.
“Gender identity is a very different issue,” says Chamberlain, and one that HR departments at forward-looking companies and organizations are becoming increasingly interested in addressing. He points to employers like TD Canada Trust as having clear guidelines about how to support employees transitioning at work as an indication that progress is being made.
Banks, says Chamberlain, despite the stereotype of being conservative old boys’ networks, have “been doing some fantastic stuff in diversity issues.” He is even in talks with people in Alberta in the mining sector, an industry not often regarded as queer-friendly. It’s industries, he says, like higher education and media, that rest on their reputations for being inclusive and have been surprisingly resistant to change. Despite the positive responses in the Angus Reid poll, says Chamberlain, it still shows that more than a quarter of the people surveyed don’t think things have improved.
Another group missed by the poll are those who leave work to start their own businesses. In 2005, radio DJ Lisa Marshall hosted a popular morning radio show in Moncton, New Brunswick. By then she’d been “out” on the radio for 15 years. Typical on-air banter involved weekend activities; her co-host would talk about his family and she would tell stories about her same-sex partner. Soon after a new general manager took over, Marshall was called to his office and told to stop talking about her private life on the radio.
Marshall says it got better when she moved to Toronto with her partner and got a job with Proud FM. She was happy to be in an all-gay environment. But as that station fell on hard times, she was let go. She had reached her breaking point with the highly competitive world of radio and decided to start her own business.
Now Marshall runs a successful dog-training business in Toronto, and she is her own general manager. She works with dozens of clients a month, often in their homes. Despite, as she says, being an obvious lesbian, she hasn’t encountered any homophobia in her new role. She enjoys having total control over who she works with, and she has the power to “cut a lesson immediately” if she feels unwelcome.
Jaideep Mukerji, vice-president at Angus Reid Public Opinion, says a survey’s results reflect only the people who respond to it. And with a subject like workplace discrimination, there are many people who would rather not respond. Sensitive to this, Angus Reid enlisted the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce of Canada to help form the questions.
Angus Reid surveys are typically given to an online panel of 130,000 people across Canada who participate in a variety of polls on a large diversity of topics. Out of 983 LGBT respondents to the recent poll, only eight said they were “transgendered.”
Because the margin of error would be too high in such a sample size, Angus Reid was careful not to draw any conclusions from the trans results. So, far from any active discrimination, the lack of a trans category in the results is simply due to a lack of responses, something Mukerji hopes will be remedied by having more people join the panel.
Scanlon recognizes the mainstream polling organization’s difficulties in finding a large enough sample of trans respondents for its survey. TransPulse, which surveyed 433 trans people in Ontario between April 2009 and May 2010, has had to collect data differently, using something called respondent-driven sampling, a technique that weights data so that non-random polling — subjects recruit their friends — can be used to draw unbiased conclusions. This technique is used primarily for hard-to-access populations and involves a lot of legwork.
In his other role, working at the 519 Church St Community Centre, Scanlon puts out the call to government agencies to develop better policies around trans employees. Some have agreed to work with them on the issue, but often, hidden beneath the surface is the sentiment that he got from one anonymous response:
“I’m not interested. I have real work to do.”