Sexism in the workplace
When Mary first got a summer job as a fisheries guardian with her Band Council owned and operated fisheries operation, she was the only female of four guardians. She described the working environment to the Canada Human Rights Tribunal as sexist and chauvinist.
Twice that summer, in her presence, a Band Council member “joked” that the only place for a woman’s breasts on a boat was on the bow as a figurehead.
A few years later when she asked the Band Council to help her pay for a college course to qualify her as a boat captain like it had for men in her community, she was told there were no more spots available at the school. When she phoned the school and found out that was not the case she enrolled anyway. That same Band councilor became angry with her and told her she was taking the spot of someone else at the school. No one ever could tell her who that “someone” was.
The efforts of a female member of Band Council to get it to subsidize Mary’s captain course were unsuccessful so she offered Mary a job with a Native woman’s association to help with tuition. It only on the last day of the course that the Band Council gave in and told Mary they would reimburse her tuition fees.
After working various jobs in the fisheries for a few years Mary applied for a job on the snow crab boat. This was more arduous work than fishing lobster as the boats go out further to sea and for longer periods of time. It also pays more. While Mary was turned down, her husband got a call offering him a job as a deckhand on a snow crab boat despite the fact that all he had ever done with the fisheries was prepare gear and paint buoys.
Over the following years Mary got a job as a first mate but her fishing career was interrupted by a pregnancy and an injury.
The usual process if you wanted a job with the fisheries was to show up at the Band Council office and speak to a particular councilor. Mary did that for a number of years without success. Someone who worked at the office testified before the Canada Human Rights Tribunal that Mary’s efforts to get work would often be met with men rolling their eyes, making jokes about Mary and making comments about the place of women in the community being at home with their kids.
Throughout this period Mary’s husband was encouraged to become a boat captain despite not having enough time on the boats and not having the required first aid certification. He was continually offered work despite the fact that he failed as many required drug tests, in his own words, as he passed.
When he tried to hire Mary as one of his crew he met resistance from Band Council.
When Mary applied to be a captain of a lobster boat one season she was turned down and only given evasive answers as to why.
The Canada Human Rights Tribunal found that no real comparison was made between Mary’s qualifications for that captaincy and the man who was actually awarded it.
The reality was that by that time there were 45 to 60 people working as crew members in the fisheries and only two were women, and they were performing non-fishing roles.
The Tribunal did find that she had been the victim of discrimination.
My suspicion is that when women are turned down for jobs in male-dominated industries or positions more often than not they move on and try elsewhere, looking for a more enlightened employer. The employer is a stranger to them and they have no idea why their application was not entertained.
Mary’s situation was different. She knew this employer and its practices well.
While Mary had the advantage of this knowledge as she began her fight, I believe it took even more courage than usual. Challenging entrenched power structures is always grueling. Being willing to confront patriarchy within the community in which one lives, socializes, and which is the very fabric of your personal heritage is impressive.
The adjudicator in this case did not order a remedy but allowed the parties to enter into mediation and hopefully that process will lead to some healing.
Ed Canning practices labour and employment law with Ross & McBride LLP, in Hamilton, representing both employers and employees. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org