Words Matter.

AuthorBowal, Peter
PositionSex discrimination in the workplace

November 2, 2018


Several decades ago, in my first summer job during university, I washed dishes and performed other unskilled labours in the kitchen of a large government seniors' nursing home in rural Alberta. While the work itself was not particularly memorable, I observed in that workplace of 15 men, the manager obviously decided to discriminate against women to maintain his male-only staff and felt justified for doing so. My co-workers at times spoke and acted in ways that would have made it uncomfortable for women to work there.

I have also been the only male in some work scenarios. For example, on one book project I recall the female editor consistently greeting us with "Hi Ladies"--a salutation that stubbornly persisted even after I pointed it out its error. The interaction between women at work, I discovered then and since, presented its own challenges for me and was... well, very different than the interaction between the men working in the nursing home kitchen.

Not too much has changed in the intervening years despite best intentions. There are still male-dominated workplaces and female-dominated workplaces. While employers try to create more balance, employee behaviours must change for the workplace to be more hospitable to the under-represented gender.

This 2012 story of a male-dominated workplace--the City of Calgary firefighters --shows how a few careless, throw-away words from a manager with a long record of good service can lead to serious consequences.

The Calgary Fire Fighters Case

In March 2011, a fire captain was covering a neighbouring station which had three female firefighters assigned to it. On the ride back to the station in the fire truck the visiting captain asked his male colleagues why there were so many "gashes" at this fire hall. Someone asked him what he meant. He replied with words to the effect of "cunts, I mean cunts." When the captain realized a female firefighter was sitting at the back of the cab he turned to her and said "I'm sorry, I forgot you were here." He apologized several times and privately to her again at the station. She and other colleagues at the time did not consider that disciplinary action was necessary.

Somehow, management was informed about the incident. The Fire Chief sought to make a forceful statement that such conduct would not be tolerated. He dismissed the captain.

The escalation continued. There was a sense of backlash against the three female fire fighters at that...

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