The decision by CTV’s parent company Bell Media to abruptly end its contract with its lead national news anchor Lisa LaFlamme this past summer sparked public outcry.
While touting the move as a ‘business decision’, accusations of sexism and ageism surfaced after the esteemed journalist let her hair go gray brought these issues into the spotlight and has sparked much conversation in the business world.
“It definitely has raised awareness and discussion and debate as some companies have been doing things to promote gray hair,” says Jessie Zhan, Associate Professor, Department of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management, Wilfrid Laurier University, referring to Dove Canada’s ‘keep the gray’ campaign launched in wake of LaFlamme’s dismissal.
As a result of the publicity surrounding LaFlamme’s departure, Helen Jowett, President and CEO of McDonald-Green, a Cambridge-based HR Consulting Firm, says that Bell Media’s decision has left many in the business world questioning things about gender and ageism, noting the sudden end of the news anchor’s contract overshadowed the fact she was not given any real opportunity to have her long career celebrated.
“As a sixty something female, I too was disappointed that she had not been given the same respect that her male counterparts had been afforded,” says Helen.
Professor Zhan’s says issues surrounding sexism and ageism in the workplace aren’t new but have probably become more noticeable because of the whole demographic shift in the workplace.
“The population and workforce are aging and at the same time, in the workplace different age groups and generations are working together on a day-to-day basis and that makes ageism more noticeable,” she says, noting these issues, along with racism, make up the three main issues facing many workplaces and has been working with one of her students to investigate the intersectionality of sexism and ageism.
“In the literature, gender and sex and age have been studied separately but they’re not separate issues,” says Professor Zhan, adding that younger men and women in today’s workplaces do not seem to represent the stereotypical interpersonal perception of those older in which men are often perceived as being more dominate while older women take a more ‘supportive’ or ‘motherly’ role in the work environment. “The younger generation really tries to protect their gender equality in the workplace or making those gender differences less noticeable.”
Helen agrees, adding having various generations working together can also result in valuable mentoring opportunities.
“Many cultures revere the wisdom of age and I’m encouraged that the young leadership demographic rising today are embodying the desire to accept the benefits of diversity in relationships.”
Professor Zhan says in the workplace, age is the one constant noting that every worker will age and eventually become part of another work demographic.
“At different ages, people will belong to different age groups throughout their work career,” she says.
How to identify potential issues in the workplace
When it comes to identifying potential issues surrounding sexism or ageism, Professor Zhan says awareness is always key.
“It can be difficult to tell a person’s attitude,” she says, adding there may be observable behaviours in the workplace that may indicate an issue exists. “Are people interested in making friends outside their age group? Do you see people from different age groups talking to one another? Do you have the sense people feel comfortable working with others from a different age group?”
Helen says potential signs could also include something as simple as dismissing or exclusion of input, right up to psychological bullying.
“Leaders must be clear about the behaviours that they themselves model, reward and tolerate. Early detection of out of sorts relations should be addressed with empathy, understanding and encouragement to resolve conflict,” she says. “Certainly, policy and process for safe communication of escalated behaviours should be well communicated, reported and disciplined.”
What can be done when an issue is discovered?
There are laws and regulations in place when it comes to gender equality, including the Employment Equity Act, Pay Equity Act, Canadian Gender Budgeting Act, and the Canada Labour Code. At the provincial level, the Ontario Human Rights Code protects people from age discrimination.
However, Professor Zahn says taking a good hard look at those in your workplace is the best first step before taking any further action or implementing new policies.
“If you spend time with your people, you will be able to tell whether those from different age groups actually want to work together,” she says, adding positive contact between intergenerational employees can reduce stereotypical perceptions.
Helen says encouraging and celebrating the information exchange between employees can go a long way to setting the tone for inclusivity of all people and preferences.
“Raising awareness of the strategic benefits of understanding differences should be spoken of often and openly,” she says. “There will always be something to be learned from someone else if we can embrace the learning offered.”
And if policy changes are required, Professor Zahn says implementing age specific ones can be a benefit and could include providing training or mentorship opportunities to older employees or creating a clearer path for younger workers to switch to a role they may find more challenging and meaningful.
“Traditionally, when people talk about HR practices, they are age universal. People rarely talk about whether certain HR practices have the same impact for people who are younger versus older in the workplace,” she says, noting each age group values different things. “Most findings have shown age specific HR policies/practices that keep age differences in mind have a positive impact on employees.”
But Professor Zahn is quick to note there can be a negative side also to such policies and practices, explaining by highlighting these age differences may make some employees feel they are being treated ‘differently’ than others.
“It could hinder their performance or lower their self-esteem,” she says, adding there is a new stream of research being conducted highlighting benevolent sexism and racism in the workplace where ‘over accommodating’ employees can be just as harmful. “These actions and feelings are not always coming from the intention to harm.”
Are workplaces getting better at curbing sexism and ageism?
There is no real clear answer to this question, however, Professor Zahn says there is clearly more discussion going on centred around age in the workplace.
“When it comes to ageism, older people are not the only targets. Younger workers are targets as well,” she says. “They can often be perceived stereotypically as less reliable, and they may not get the opportunities to be promoted to certain advancement programs.”
As a result, it’s imperative to celebrate the multicultural and multigenerational perspectives found in workplaces and try to do things in different ways.
“Hopefully, we can value and celebrate that and enjoy the positivity,” says Professor Zahn. “The first step is always becoming aware of the problem.”
Helen says while most organizations are capable of recognizing differences in people’s gender, age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference and many other observable differences, there are still strides to be made.
“Without oversimplifying, we must get better at recognizing and appreciating the strength of sameness and differences for peaceful coexistence,” she says. “Successful organizations learnt early that harnessing employee differences in a respectful way can actually be a strategic imperative resulting in improved support for their customers, suppliers and employees.”
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