Stories of sexism in the workplace

By Samantha Ponting

710710080505465673A workplace can become so toxic for a woman, and other genders that commonly face violence and discrimination, that the easiest escape is often to quit the job.

I spoke with a friend last week who was complaining about how all her male co-workers belittle her and don’t value her opinions. When she raised concerns with her editor-in-chief, he completely dismissed her. She is contemplating quitting because she doesn’t see any other avenues for recourse.

This can mean taking a pay cut and spending numerous unpaid hours searching for alternative work. It can mean sacrificing an important job experience. Sexism permeates our workplaces and holds people back, constantly.

In November, released a callout for testimonials of sexism in the workplace. Sexual harassment, gender discrimination in hiring, pay inequity, gendered work assignment, workplace violence, and constant degradation were some of the common themes that have arisen from the responses we’ve received.

In some service sector jobs, harassment from customers is so widespread that workers report experiencing it in one form or another “in every shift.”

For service sector workers, the common denominator is that male clients feel they are entitled to scrutinize, sexualize, degrade, touch, dissect, and ogle women’s bodies. Customers have a false sense of entitlement from the money they spend or withhold. They think their money gives them the right to exercise power over workers. And in some cases, employers encourage this power imbalance. As one woman reveals, “We, as staff, were told to consider each [club] member our ‘boss.’”

Because these formal or informal workplace codes sanction harassment, customers learn that they can treat workers as they please without consequence. It is becoming increasingly clear that workplace harassment is an epidemic.

Women are routinely paid less than men. According a 2014 report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, university educated women in the private sector earn 27 per cent less than men, and 18 per cent less in the public sector. Many women have their own anecdotes that support these statistics.

In my very first job working for a Burlington café called the Bukamaranga Bean and Bagel, women were only allowed to work the front, while men worked in the back as bakers. Bakers made an extra couple dollars per hour. The rest of us made minimum wage. One of my female co-workers asked the boss once if she could bake, and he said no, giving no justification except that she was a women.

I wish my exuberant 14 year old self had had a better understanding of our rights as workers back then.

Inside and outside the workplace, actions women take and decisions women make are usually seen through a gendered lens.

As one respondent reveals, “I spent a considerable amount of time managing my credibility  – women in senior roles must constantly ‘prove’ themselves.”

For all people who experience some form of oppression, this is a common sentiment. There’s a delicate balancing act between being heard, being seen, being credible, being assertive, and being humble.

While sexism is just one form of gender-based violence – many workers experience additional barriers and violence when compounded with their identities as queer or gender non-conforming, for example – we see it rampant.

Thank you to all the people who have courageously shared their stories with us. When requested, we have chosen to respect the anonymity of a contributor to maintain her privacy. The following accounts, uncut, are just a snapshot of broader experiences of violence and discrimination facing women in Canadian workplaces.

Domestic violence in the workplace

One reason I left the job I had connected to the film industry in the 1990s was because I was witness to my boss hitting his girlfriend in the workplace – she also worked there. I provided her with some moral support and advice, untrained, and eventually decided I couldn’t work for that guy anymore and quit.

Currently I’m being harassed at work and I believe a component of it is gender-based. Two male colleagues in another area have dismissed my work as irrelevant and inconsequential. They have suggested that I am not entitled to comment on their advice and opinions offered to management. Thankfully my direct boss and her boss, both women, have my backs.

“Rife with sexual harassment”

Apart from that time my boss asked me out for drinks after work (I said no and he backed off), and all those times I got hit on by customers during my days as a bartender, there’s one job that clearly sticks out in my mind as being rife with sexual harassment and overall workplace bullshit.

I was 19 years old and working as a server in a private country club where rich people played golf and tennis. It was a minimum wage job, which at the time in Quebec was $7/hr. The way it worked was the members were considered “owners” of the club and paid huge membership fees.

What this meant was that we, as staff, were told to consider each member our “boss.” This meant that there was no one staff could go to with employee concerns or issues (because we were obviously not going to raise these things with the members themselves).

First off, only women could be “servers” and only men could be hired as “barmen,” which is discriminatory. But overall it was pretty much anything goes in terms of how we were treated. 

Some of the members were awful – men would tell us we’d make more money dancing on tables instead of serving them and that we could ”try out” on them.

Some women were quite short with us and accused us of flirting with their husbands. One woman in particular told me that the only reason I was hired was because I was young and probably easy.

We had this manager who was in charge of running things and he harassed the serving staff all the time. There was no accountability. I worked with five or six other women and everyone had their own stories about this man. More than one had had their ass pinched by him. He would also stick his tongue out at us if we got angry. He was such a creep.bartending

As servers, we had to wear uniforms, which included a metal name tag held on by a magnet (they didn’t want pinholes in our shirts). One day I was stationed at the lunch buffet in the lounge bar and he came up to me and pulled my name tag off my chest, causing the magnet to fall to the inside bottom of my shirt.

He then just looked at me and said, “Well, go fishing.” I rolled my eyes and walked away. He asked me, “Where do you think you’re going?” I said I was going to bathroom to put my name tag back on and that what he had done was inappropriate. He retorted with, “Oh please. I’ve seen bigger and better than you.”

He also had the habit of just watching us during our shift and when things were quiet. He would complain about his “frigid” wife. He told me several times his nickname for her was “Lumpy,” and then he’d say, ‘But you don’t look like that.” *SHUDDER* I lasted 3 months and quit.

– Priscillia Lefebvre

Racist Sexism

For a long time in my old job, my face and body were normal topics of office conversation. I just accepted the pervasive attitude – talking about my image was acceptable.

I almost thought commenting on how beautiful I was was a compliment that should be tossed around constantly, even when it was coming from the associate dean of a university.

Moreover, female co-workers telling me I should eat more was typical water cooler discussion. Conversations with new people in the office were often framed around my outward appearance:

“Where’re you from?”
“You are so beautiful.”
“Are you Middle Eastern?”
“I know Middle Eastern people, the women are so beautiful.”
“Your eyes!!!”
“You are so skinny, Aminah, eat more.”
“Do you eat?”

It was only recently that I realized that this was all affecting my mental health and it was stifling my career. Overall, my colleagues in this workplace thought of me as a skinny, powerless, immigrant young woman who was just cute or pretty.

I had no competence, and no one took the time or effort to know my capabilities. No one cared to know me, not even my bosses. This made the racist sexism even more complex, and the oppression multi-faceted, as it touched on Islamophobia.

I discovered that a work environment with pervasive sexism became a toxic place to work – that the sexism was not affecting a sole individual but the entire workplace. Moreover, the sexism was systemic and deeply entrenched, where other women felt threatened by each other and the “younger, prettier, skinnier, and sexier” worker. It actually started to create conflict with my other female colleagues. I felt that they resented me or other women who were constantly valorized for “beauty.”

My work place story is not unique  – it is a reminder of how patriarchy manifests in this country.

We pat ourselves on the back for being extremely progressive and leaders of women’s rights in the world. Sadly I disagree. I would argue the women’s liberation movement has either been lost on the way to the needs of capitalism or been neatly packaged within capitalism. Women in Canada may be involved in labour supply chains and can participate in the neoliberal market, but they have yet to be treated like dignified humans.

I always reach to Catherine MacKinnnon’s critique of liberal feminism and capitalism, which she says gives women “a piece of the pie as currently and poisonously baked.”

– Aminah Sheikh

Pay inequity in the service industry

Since I graduated from university with a BA in 2012, I have worked a number of low-paying, precarious service industry jobs, usually three at a time, to be able to support myself (barely). For about a year and a half, I worked at a locally-owned vegetarian restaurant, which is known around the city for having rather outspoken, good environmental politics.

During that time, I was promoted to Weekend Manager, which dramatically increased my responsibilities, stress level and in turn left me as the one to blame for anything being wrong. A pay increase of one dollar extra an hour (above minimum wage) was agreed upon.

Wisconsin workers protest the repeal of the Equal Pay Enforcement Act, repealed under Governor Scott Walker in 2012.
Wisconsin workers protest the repeal of the Equal Pay Enforcement Act, repealed under Governor Scott Walker in 2012.

However, two months later, I still did not have the raise, so I confronted my boss (the owner) and asked for back pay. He said he couldn’t afford more than a $0.75 raise and refused the back pay. I had no choice but to agree.

I found out a short while later, when it was casually mentioned, that a male co-worker made $2.00 more an hour than I did when I was management and he was not. 

I feel as a young woman trying to enter the professional workforce, I am constantly having to turn my head and ignore sexist comments and acts when they are committed, which in some of my jobs has been every shift. 

I am working now for much less pay as a childcare provider and am much happier, albeit still in a precarious position financially. 

Boardroom sexism in the 1990s

Here’s a couple of comments on my life experiences as the lone woman in the boardroom, back in the 1990s.

I recall on one occasion being told by a senior executive I reported to that the reason we have problems in the world is because women like me were working, instead of staying at home and raising children.

On another occasion, a female colleague (more senior in age to me, but not in organizational position) mentioned that I belonged at home with my children, and why was I working so late? These kinds of comments led to conflicting feelings and guilt around my two roles – that of professional manager, and that of mother.

Due to the nature of the organization and my role and responsibilities, I worked long hours. When I was at work, I felt guilty about not being with my children. When I was at home with my children, I felt guilty that I wasn’t getting all my work done. 

Part of my job involved recruiting new employees, as this was a very fast growing oil and gas company. The manager of the operations department and I presented, and advocated for an excellent candidate, who was a female engineer.

We had a great debate around the boardroom table as to whether to hire her, because according to the rest of the men, she would only get pregnant anyway and not return to work. The manager and I won our argument and we hired this young woman. And sure enough after a couple of years, she did get pregnant. However, what I remember about her is that despite serious complications with her pregnancy that impacted her health, she returned to work within just a couple of months.

She was Asian, and told me that she could do so because her father and mother were there to provide support and help her with child care. I thought this woman was such a strong woman. There were very few female engineers at that time and she sure showed the executives that she was still a dedicated woman and capable of finding the resources to assist her so that she could continue in her career. She ended up being promoted to a managerial role a few years later. 

I spent a considerable amount of time managing my credibility – women in senior roles must constantly “prove” themselves. There was, however, one executive that made my job very difficult, and on one occasion, he belittled me by telling everyone how “stupid” I was in a management meeting. 

After receiving submissions, it became evident that every person that wrote to us has not just one anecdote of workplace sexism but multiple experiences to share. In some ways, these testimonials became an exercise of identifying the most stark examples that stick out in our histories. Most women could probably find an example for all their past workplaces. Here’s the most stark example of workplace sexism from my own past:

I once quit a job due to workplace sexual harassment. I was working for the Ottawa Council on Aging, and the then-executive director, Al Loney, was a power tripper that would work half days and then regularly call his female staff to make sure they were still in the office. I got the job as a winter co-op placement, but I didn’t last past January.

Al would make his female secretaries wash his dishes and make him tea. I quit the day he screamed at me for identifying his double standards after he insisted I clear the papers from my desk every night (his office had a chaotic post-apocalyptic air to it).

Al would make sexual comments to me during my work there that made the workplace toxic. He told me when I hung my coat on the tree, “not to take the pole home and dance with it.” Once, when I was untying my shoes, he told me not to take all my clothes off. Some of the other staff excused his behavior because he was a “crazy old man.”

I went to the co-op office at the University of Ottawa and demanded they find me another placement. My female co-op advisor was sympathetic, but the male director told me it wasn’t “necessarily sexual harassment,” and they couldn’t guarantee me another job, but I could quit if I wanted to  – a permission much needed since the co-op office had academic penalties for students that quit their co-op placements. I insisted that the office not re-post the job to future students. They looked at past case files of the workplace and said there were no past complaints of sexual harassment.

I would have been safer had the NGO had an anti-harassment policy and a staff relations officer I could have complained to. The university should have had a policy in place to protect the safety of student-workers.

I will always regret not using my case to push for better human rights policies in these organizations. But I’m more motivated now than ever to fight back –and fight back hard – if this happens again in the future.

Making our workplaces safer

Workplaces need to adopt clear and visible zero-tolerance policies in collaboration with workers. I’d love to see signs in bars that tell people that they will be banned immediately if they are suspected of engaging in any form of sexual harassment, including against servers.

There are a range of cultural and structural changes that need to take place to fight sexism and it’s toxic effects. These changes don’t end with the employer. Legislative changes, as well as improved enforcement of current human rights and labour legislation, can only begin to address issues such as workplace discrimination, health, and safety.

Unions have played an important role in incorporating anti-harassment provisions into workers’ collective agreements that also outline a clear grievance process. But there’s more that unions can do.

The Canadian Labour Congress, alongside Western University, recently published the results of far-reaching survey on surveygraphicdomestic violence and the workplace that found that one third of workers surveyed have experienced domestic violence, and 82% of those respondents said it negatively affected their work performance. It reports that domestic violence can enter the workplace in the form of text messages, emails, visits, and phone calls from the perpetrator.

Consistent with other national data, transgendered folks, people with disabilities, queer and Indigenous respondents were particularly likely to report experiences of domestic violence.

The survey also establishes that most respondents believe that supports such as safety policies and paid leave for domestic violence can decrease its impact on the workers’ work lives.

Unions should demand that specific supports, such as paid leave for domestic violence, be incorporated into collective agreements.

Paid anti-oppression training should be mandatory for all workers in all workplaces. All workers, including management, need to have base training around what oppression is – in all its forms – with emphasis on how to prevent discrimination and harassment.

Union officials, including shop stewards, should be trained on how to respond sensitively and confidentially to workplace grievances, and must be knowledgeable about avenues for resolution.

Our unions need to renew commitments to increasing diversity in staff and leadership positions, so that people feel comfortable approaching the union if they’ve experienced gender-based violence.

This can limit someone’s fear of being disbelieved. As Ella Bedard discusses in her piece on workplace sexual harassment, women facing violence in their workplace or personal life are more likely to reach out to another woman for support.

Increasing diversity is important if we are to better support all groups that commonly face social inequality, discrimination, and violence. We must recognize that workplace sexism is intensified when intersecting with other forms of oppression, such as racism, ableism, and classism.

Not every woman has the flexibility to quit a job when things get toxic.


For further suggestions on combating discrimination and making workplaces safer, also see Defend and Understand Your Transgendered Members.  

For further policy recommendations for limiting the impact of domestic violence on workers, see Can Work Be Safe, When Home Isn’t?

Bedard’s succinct piece Here’s how to shift culture and reduce harassment makes some great suggestions for how we can work to shift workplace cultures that foster unsafe spaces for women.

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2 thoughts on “Stories of sexism in the workplace

  1. Pingback: Are you a worker that’s experienced sexism? |

  2. Presently on long term disability since May 1995. Twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with PTSD, chronic anxiety and clinical depression a one time episode due to workplace harassment. Does it matter today? Hell yes! but my story was never validated by my employer. Statue of limitation is a prison for victims. The union is a joke. Human rights plays cards with the employer and so on. The victim’s fact report is a long term survival tool to filter continuous of pain & suffering. Basically everything was pushed under the rug for me by many to protect the ivory tower. My perpetrator is still employed at the University. My pension plan is half of what I should have in 2015. Lawyer’s say it’s to time consuming to take my case. The system is set up by the Sports Hall of Fame.

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