A woman's fingers on a computer keyboard

Tackling Barriers for LGBTQ2S+ Canadians in the Workplace

By Zak Vescera,  The Tyee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The job seekers that Nick Ebbadi-Cook works with have two things in common. The first is that they’re  LGBTQ2S+. And the second is that almost all of them have faced  discrimination in the workplace because of it.  

“We’ve had about 40 participants come  through, and the majority of those folks have faced discrimination,”  said Ebbadi-Cook in an interview earlier this month. “They’ve been  misgendered. They’ve faced harassment. They’ve been let go because of  their identity.” 

Ebbadi-Cook is the program manager of Prism Employment Support Service,  a program specifically designed to help LGBTQ2S+ people in Greater  Vancouver learn skills, navigate workplace issues and find jobs. “The  base of our resources are the general employment resources but with a  queer lens,” he said. 

The program, a collaboration between the YWCA and Vancouver resource centre Qmunity,  is in part a reaction to what Ebbadi-Cook says is becoming an  increasingly understood gap in work outcomes for LGBTQ2S+ people in  Canada. 

A growing body of research  suggests people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities  make less money than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts.  Community advocates say that reflects persistent problems of  discrimination in Canadian workplaces, which are causing some LGBTQ2S+  workers to either leave certain jobs or simply not apply for them at  all.

“These experiences seem to add and compound  over peoples’ careers that result in lower overall earnings,” said  Basia Pakula, a senior researcher with the non-profit Social Research  and Demonstration Corp. “You may be choosing a pay cut in order to work  for an employer where you are feeling safe.”

The SRDC partnered with Pride at Work  Canada on a series of reports into the experiences of LGBTQ2S+ Canadians  in the labour market. One of those studies,  published this spring, linked demographic data collected by Statistics  Canada with tax filings. It found heterosexual men, on average, made  $55,959 a year, compared to $50,822 for gay men; $44,740 for lesbian  women; $31,776 for bisexual men and $25,290 for bisexual women. 

For gay men, the analysis found the gap in  earnings was explained by other factors. But those factors couldn’t  explain the gaps for any other demographic groups. 

The centre also performed a second, qualitative analysis  interviewing queer workers about their experiences. The findings were  complex: in some cases, challenges with mental health contributed to the  wage gap. In others, Pakula, one of the study’s authors, says it became  clear some workers believed discrimination had affected their earnings,  or had chosen to not apply for jobs in certain well-paying sectors —  like the skilled trades — out of concern about discrimination. 

“These experiences are not uniform. There is a tremendous amount of diversity within the community,” Pakula said.

Colin Druhan, the executive director of  Pride at Work, has worked as a business advisor for members of the  LGBTQ2S+ community for years. “It didn’t matter what part of their life  they were in. The employment piece was always a thorn in their side,” he  said. 

Druhan noted many companies are more vocal  than ever about their support for LGBTQ2S+ rights. They fly rainbow  flags, post signs in store windows and participate in Pride parades. 

But he said that doesn’t always mean they’ve made workplaces welcoming. 

“A lot of people have questions: if you’ve got that rainbow flag out, what are you doing?” Druhan said. 

Ebbadi-Cook said some employers, for  example, may not know about their obligations pertaining to pronouns, or  may not have amenities like gender-neutral washrooms. In many ways, he  said, LGBTQ2S+ people are navigating an extra set of job politics; one  of the services Prism hopes to soon offer is a workshop about how to  come out in the workplace. 

They also compile an internal job board, he  said, list companies who have responded to a survey about their values  and how they accommodate employees of diverse sexual and gender  identities. 

In other cases, though,  Ebbadi-Cook says there can be explicit discrimination. He recalls one of  the first jobs he ever worked in the service industry after coming out.  

“I faced a lot of harassment. I guess at  the time people would have considered it light-hearted ribbing. But it’s  hard to feel safe and show up as your true self in places… it’s really  demoralizing, and it really makes you question whether you belong in the  space,” he said. 

Druhan says many queer workers simply  choose to not come out to their colleagues or employer, particularly  those who are already part of other marginalized groups. 

“They know they are perhaps already  disadvantaged, and they don’t want to disadvantage themselves further.  That tells us about how privilege operates in our communities,” Druhan  said. 

The problem is well-known, which is why  Ebbadi-Cook says the YWCA and Qmunity partnered to create Prism. He says  their goal is to serve approximately 60 people in their first few  months of operation. If successful, he says, the goal would be to seek  more funding to expand the program to the rest of the province. They  also hope to work more directly with employers, he said. 

On a larger scale, though, Pakula says  government responses are restrained by a dearth of data. For example,  the SRDC’s research couldn’t determine what real wage gaps were between  heterosexual men and people with different gender identities, such as  non-binary people or transgender people. Statistics Canada began asking  census respondents in 2021 whether their sex assigned at birth differs  from the one they currently identified with, something policymakers said  would offer a national-level snapshot of the population. 

She said there was a need for more  “intervention-oriented research” focused more on determining needed  solutions rather than drilling down on the well-known problems.

But Pakula said the national-level data picture is still far too weak. 

“You just cannot understand what’s going on and why it’s going on just by looking at the numbers,” she said.

Top image credit: Working on a computer – Photo by Wutthichai Charoenburi via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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