Judicial Review Update

In 2007 I filed a complaint against my employer, the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission because I believe that I was subjected to gender discrimination as an HRM firefighter.  I waited 5 years before the commission dismissed my case after, what seemed to me to be, a shoddy investigation. I subsequently filed for a judicial review of their decision in April of 2012.

On February 19, 2014, the court released its decision in regards to this review. The result of this review, which can be found here, was in my favor. The judge, Honourable Justice Arthur LeBlanc, ordered that the decision of the NSHRC to dismiss my case be quashed and a that new investigation is to be undertaken by those with no prior involvement in my case.

Here a couple highlights from the court’s decision:

[63] …A thorough investigation required more than merely accepting the contents of the HRM response at face value. A reasonable investigator would have recognized that additional crucial information could be gathered by conducting thorough and critically-minded interviews with CM and DCB. Given the central importance of their version of events to the outcome of the investigation, such interviews were required for a thorough investigation (Page 28).

[65] I find that D’s failure to interview either CM or DCB amounts to a breach of procedural fairness pursuant to the test set out in Slattery, supra. This breach alone is sufficient to invalidate the investigation and render the Commissioners unable to make a proper screening determination on this case based on the sufficiency of the record before them (Page 29).

I’ve been asked how I feel about this decision, and I have to say that in many ways I feel vindicated, at least in my complaints against the commission. I still have reservations about my case being again undertaken by an organization that has clearly had some major problems, according to recent news reports (Jan. 7/14 and Jan. 8/14). That being said, I remain optimistic that there are some that care and will make every effort to address my claims fairly.

I can confidentially say that my efforts to keep fighting against the segregation and discrimination of women in the male dominated workplace will continue, and I believe that companies, employers, and government agencies are going to have to acknowledge and address this issue more forcefully.

On International Women’s Day, the timing could not be better for women to speak up and tell their stories of harassment, and I encourage women here in Nova Scotia, other provinces, and abroad to find the courage to do so.  I have noticed an awakening happening – a momentum in thought and action within the minds of women around the world.

Government agencies and corporations tend to listen to the masses much more than a single voice.  They can dismiss and ignore me, a single voice, but they cannot ignore thousands of women standing up shoulder to shoulder.  For my next blog – why women don’t speak out and why we absolutely need to.

The Problem With Women’s Groups

One might think that given the prevalence of gender problems in male-dominated workplaces there would be a strong and growing network of women working to push back the barriers that keep us separated and marginalized. But such is not the case.

When I think back to almost a decade ago when I first started to fight for justice and reveal the harassment and gender discrimination that was happening to me within my very male dominated job at the time, I truly believed that women’s groups and other similar types of coalitions would surely answer to my call for assistance. Desperate for help, I prayed for some prominent female in either politics or academia (who was just as outraged as I) to speak out publically about the poor treatment and disrespect women like me were subject to while working within this type of environment. In the early years before I started vocalizing my political views publically, I fought for years in private, naively believing that my employers, the numerous agencies and government institutions I sought help from would also rise up to take on what I believed to be a huge societal problem for women everywhere.

Unfortunately gender discrimination/harassment within male dominated workplaces is all too familiar for many women across North America, who still face various forms of sexism and sexual harassment for no other reason than for being female. This continues to be an issue that many, including the general public, industry, employers and even the agencies that are supposed to prevent discrimination and advocate for women rights and freedoms like human rights tribunals and women’s groups, want to avoid and dismiss as irrelevant.

I am completely frustrated and overwhelmed with the lack of support and resources that are available for me as a women working within this type of workplace. My long and disillusioning fight for respect, a fight that I am still engaged in today, was just the beginning of the problems I was to face. The patterns and attitudes of the men within the boys’ club’s territory are merely the product of a much larger problem where sexist and juvenile behavior is time and time again condoned by the companies and organization that are supposedly here to protect and support our rights as women. Their proud claims of diversity and equality within the workplace has been a sham, and everything I started to uncover over time, while trying to fight back, supported the Boys’ Club and forced me to question my sanity and reasons for even trying to fight.

This long fight gets longer and never seems to end when factoring in the other contributors such as the lack of resources and support there is for women like me. Along with the institutional organizations, there is so much negativity and resistance from Human Resources Consultants, union representatives, the males in question, other males and female co-workers, which compounds the problem and adds layer upon layer to the original abuse.

Here in Canada, the majority of both individual women and women’s groups fall short or are absent when it comes to aiding women who are struggling with this type of discrimination. Even national support groups for women are reluctant to support women who experience workplace gender discrimination. Within the last year, as I began to speak out publically, on my own, I received significantly more support from American women’s groups than Canadian ones, which is an unfortunate reality that points to a need for reform of the structure of support groups in this country.

Women’s groups and organization in the US greatly outnumber the groups here in Canada. Documentaries like “The Invisible War” along with numerous law suits and aggressive campaigns for legislative changes are highlighting the atrocities of the “rape culture” that is being exposed within the US military, where a staggering number of women have been sexually assaulted while on active duty. The non-profit organization Gender Justice, of St Paul, Minnesota, is run by two attorneys who contacted me last year when I posted my videos online. Unlike the others, they actually took the time to help me with a legal matter before I was able to find a lawyer here in Canada. In my experience, even lawyers here are reluctant to take on gender related cases.

In my experience, women’s groups are limited and selective in what feminist causes to champion and who to support. This adds to the hopelessness of an already hopeless situation when one realizes that even advocacy groups will not support women who are suffering from gender discrimination in the workplace. This is an area of discussion that will get messy and provoke many—but it is necessary.

Women’s committees and coalitions have areas of priority that issues such as women’s poverty and housing or childcare get attention, and now more than ever, domestic violence and the concept of the “rape culture” is showing up in main stream media with analysis and statistical information helping to raise awareness. But violence against women such as what is happening to women within the male dominated workplace receives no mentioned in the mandates of many organizations that I have sought help from. Even the small numbers of groups that do support women in the trades seem to fall short in aiding women who are suffering from gender discrimination and they did not respond to me when I came knocking. This lack of support from individual women and women’s groups has been one of the most devastating discoveries throughout this arduous journey. Groups that speak of the importance of change and advancing justice for all women are absent and no one should know the struggle more – how could they not? You can’t be selective when touting yourself as a blanket of support – this male dominated culture that I and many other women are a part of is simply not on the list. Through the years I sought out the aid of many individual women who were associated with established organizations and got little or no response. At times, connections were established, but they were temporary commitments of support. None stayed the course and when times got urgent not one group even responded.

Within society today, I believe that there is a growing momentum within the women’s rights movement, and the movement is being galvanized but into separate and distinct agendas. Despite the frequency of campaigns and rallies helping to give credence to both the progress and the marginalization that still largely exists for us, I feel that I as a woman within the movement, fighting for my rights, I have been left out in the cold. There are still many areas in need of attention, but even women’s groups that seek the same justice as I do will not go near this topic. Perhaps in theory, but certainly not in practice. I have approached every group and organization of this sort that I can find, both in my region and beyond, and though there are sometimes words of support, they simply cannot or do not provide any assistance whatsoever. They have no support systems, no resources, and no hope for women like me. Gender inequality in male-dominated workplaces seems to be a topic of the past, the present state of affairs is not widely known, studied, or even taken seriously. Yet, in my experience, it has become a huge societal problem where women do not feel safe to voice their struggles because there is no one there to step up and offer support.

The fight for women’s rights outside the home by women’s groups and other countless individual women fighting tirelessly throughout history has been a long hard won battle – reproductive rights, safer work places, safe housing, child care and numerous other issues are a testament to the improvement of the status of women over the past several decades but many who do this work would say that we are still nowhere near where it should be and aggressive updating is needed to even begin to see equality.

Like many groups fighting or advocating for the same cause, subgroups form making it difficult to feel that your particular voice is being heard and taken seriously. In the sixties, coloured women and lesbians felt alienated and separated from what appeared to be a movement that was limited and catered to middleclass white women’s issues and ideals. I too as a woman fighting for my rights within the movement feel ignored. I am both fascinated and infuriated at the lack of support and now believe this to be a class issue at play here as well as an ego issue.

Historically, the role and original purpose of women’s groups was to help the underprivileged. Those that had the time and resources to help were often from the upper class offering help to those in a lower class. In many ways, this model has not changed. Many look at me they say, “wait a minute, you make way more than I do,” or “you make more than my husband makes”. Perhaps they are saying to themselves: “how dare you ask for help when there are women needing housing and food to feed their children”. But what they don’t understand is by me clearing the way for equality in the workplace – that means that for some of those women who are not working or are just scraping by, maybe their granddaughter or daughters will be able to get these types of jobs, that pay well, and be treated properly and not be afraid or reluctant to go work in this type of environment. So they are missing the point. I’m here to talk about our daughters and granddaughters who may believe the road is clear and the options are open when in reality the barriers are real and sometimes insurmountable. No one can work effectively when the situation is so volatile and the treatment so poor.

Women within any male dominated workplaces are at risk of discrimination and harassment. Whether it’s women in politics, law, medicine, the tech world or women like me in the very – male dominated occupations, like longshoring and firefighting, gender discrimination is real, harmful and widespread. Sexism in everyday life and the workplace is so common that it has become the norm for many women. But we casually just look the other way and minimize its effect on us because we have no other choice then to just shrug it off or pretend it does not exist – having time and time again to either just continue to put up with it, or worst yet, join the men that harass in disrespecting other women or continue to speak out and be the lone radical on the fringe ostracized by co-workers.

All that I know, given my experience, within the context of the male dominated workplace is that we are fearful. Afraid of ourselves, each other, the men we work with and our employers/unions, and as a result silence pervades and we lose ourselves and sense of solidary as women because of it. Even the women’s groups that are there for advocacy and aid, touting relief with impressive messages of hope and triumph are just as afraid.

Most of the women’s groups I have come across who tout that they are going to be helpful and end up not, are in my opinion just as guilty as the men that perpetrate the bad behaviour by helping to prolong the suffering of another women adding yet another layer of doubt and hopelessness to her situation. It’s not just the men and their secure membership (unions, employers, etc.) that are allowing this to happen; there are individual women and women’s groups that just won’t go “there” and in so doing tacitly convey the message that what is happening to women is okay.

I’m doing this for our future generations. I am helping myself so that others can move forward and not be subject to discrimination, make a decent wage, and not necessarily have to have a man in their lives to raise their children and have a good life. Not everyone will agree, but when we move toward these goals, there is a cultural moment of change where the patriarchal society fades a bit and the matriarchal energy comes forward. So there is the possibility of a woman heading a family successfully and not just taking in laundry and scrubbing floors to make ends meet.

Not every family has a man in it. There are women married to women and those women choosing to be by themselves who are simply worn out by a relationship and want to raise their children in peace on their own. So instead of working the local retail job for minimum wage, or seeking public assistance, they can become a firefighter or stevedore, or other well-paid positions, because they are capable and strong enough to do the same work and make the same money as their male counterparts.

I envision this work as offering the opportunity to step out of that patriarchal designed arena and say, “you know what? I can be the head of the household. I can do this, and raise my children comfortably, or even send them to college. I can cloth them and feed them and give them all the advantages that I want to give them because I have this job.”

It may be your daughter, sister, aunt, granddaughter or even great granddaughter who is seeking an equal opportunity and I want to be able to look back and feel that I have contributed to paving the way and they don’t have to go through all the BS that I am having to. And anyone (women’s groups) resistant and walking away from this issue may want to think twice.

Will there be thoughtful preparation, appropriate training, and adequate remedial structures for gender-related issues? Or will the same structures of abuse continue?

Please stay tuned for more posts on what changes can be made to improve and promote solidarity among women’s organizations so as to ensure workplace equality for all women.

Challenging The Boys’ Club of Today

Over the last few hundred years (maybe more but I’m not really a historian), the public sphere of politics and work were the domain of men. In these spaces, men set the rules and policed their domain in numerous ways–through laws, policies, and sheer force. For women, their world was in the private sphere, but even there, under the patriarchal systems of the Western world, women (and children) were the property of men: fathers, husbands, and brothers. As the women’s movement began to gain momentum in the 1800′s, these divisions of labor and space came under some serious scrutiny, and by the mid of the 20th century, these boundaries had become rather porous. Women were entering the workforce and seeking public office. But although women have made substantial strides towards equality and autonomy, the gendered work force remains largely intact–women become nurses and men become doctors.

This is by no means absolute, there are, for example, many more male nurses now than a decade ago and many more female doctors than a decade ago. As the world of work changes, however, one would expect that work environments would change as well, and indeed such may be the case, but there is still a long way to go because it seems that the division of labor that partitioned men and women into the public and private sphere has shifted to a partition in the workforce, and men patrol (not necessarily consciously or even intentionally) their domain in ways very similar to their forefathers.

Male-dominated workplaces are Boys’ Clubs by default.  Within such workplaces, there is a pre-set way of being where men’s rules, attitudes and ideas structure the environment in stringent ways. There is little room for the opinions of others, especially the voice of the minority—women. The first step to combating this discrimination is recognizing that it exists.

The Boys’s Club reflects a broader cultural issue: despite the advances of women, men still posses the balance of power. Pop culture continues to portray women as sexual objects–a man’s accessory. Rarely do we see an embrace of all the qualities of women that constitute one’s humanity and one’s citizenship. Women often internalize this cultural status and accept or even pursue the role of complimenting men, but when one resists this gender role, they disrupt and threaten the status quo and the balance of power that is maintained.

The Boys’ Club is alive and well. It marks and polices its domain via the tools of dominance, entitlement, marginalization, and exclusion. As a woman working in a variety of male-dominated workplaces, such as firefighting and longshoring, I have experienced all of these tactics firsthand.

In my experience, when male dominance is challenged by a woman in the workplace she is at risk for vilification. Speaking out by complaining, criticizing or even just advocating for her rights, leads to personal attack, intimidation, retaliation and labeling for the woman who dares to challenge the norm.

For example, when I was the first in many years to formally complain as woman against my fellow male co-workers – all hell broke loose. I was treated like a pariah-intentionally ostracized, by a large majority who either seemed afraid to come near me – or refused to talk to me. These were men I had been friends with for 12 years, who overnight suddenly treated me like I was a stranger. I was ignored and no one came to ask about the specifics of what happened and why, only exaggerated malicious gossip filled the airwaves. I found it very difficult and uncomfortable going to work for many months and still to this day, years later, the backlash has not abated. Many still seem angry and simply will not talk to me.

I and other women working in these professions face the Boys’ Club head on. We are up close and personal with members of the Boys’ Club, and we can see firsthand that the majority of men still have a negative attitude towards women. We are viewed as less capable beings, our abilities are undervalued, and all of this leads to a myriad of negative actions and feelings.

I have been bullied. I have been excluded. I have been the subject of malicious gossip more times than I can count. My views have been undermined and my credibility questioned, seemingly for no other reason than that, as a woman, I am perceived as an outsider to the Boys’ Club and any skills I bring to it are seen as a threat.

This is what the Boys’ Club means.

It’s time to recognize that the Boys’ Club exists, that it’s harmful, and that we can do something about it.

Stay tuned for more posts about recognizing a Boys’ Club when you see it (or when you’re in it), how the Boys’ Club perpetuates itself, how it’s harmful, what we can do about it—and what I’m doing about it.

Speaking Our Minds–Again

This is an edited re-post of an earlier entry.

Tackling the misconceptions and worn out popular fallacies concerning the issue of gender based discrimination is an arduous and frustrating undertaking, exacting a huge social and emotional toll on women – and I should know.  Challenging the status quo is an uphill battle; the bureaucracy is fully in place.  However, I believe that details of my personal struggles as a woman working within a male dominated workplace can help to change the deep divide that I feel is still operating among the sexes today.

I believe that the Boys’ Club is alive and well despite reports that say we have made it. The initiation of sensitivity/diversity training, policies and laws that are in place surrounding the issues of sexism in the workplace, are a good part, but they need to be moved from paper and put into practice. Until the ideas of equality are taken seriously, implemented and followed up, Boys’ Clubs will continue to flourish and continue to exercise power of exclusion, oppression, and marginalization. Women need to feel safe to voice their struggles.

I have been trying to get my story out for years and have gone public in the past with marginal success. I feel that more women would speak out about discrimination within other male dominated workplaces were they aware of my story.  I am dedicated to continuing with the project and I hope that this blog will be a way to encourage others to speak out. As the details of my story unfold, I hope that I may inspire and encourage those who suffer in silence and move our society in a more equitable direction.