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When Samantha Peters decided to create Black Femme Legal, a workplace toolkit for Black queer workers, it was the realization of a dream for the newly minted lawyer.

“I always wanted to be a lawyer,” says Ms. Peters. “I am lucky that [growing up] I was surrounded by strong, fierce, Black women advocates in my family.”

Ms. Peters grew up in Toronto’s King Street East neighbourhood, influenced by the spirit of activism in her community. She says the idea to create a workplace toolkit for Black queer women, femmes and gender diverse people in Ontario that would include education, resources and referrals came about organically.

“Our story was borne out of an informal working group of queer women, femmes and gender diverse folks who had experienced anti-Black racism, harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” explains Ms. Peters, who also does consulting work and is currently studying for her master’s degree in law.

“Because we [as queer femmes] use various forms of accountability mechanism to heal, I wanted to curate all of those resources so that folks will be able to define justice, accountability and healing on their own terms.”

A major grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario helped her get the idea off the ground. The grant allowed her to set up a website, hire part-time staff and facilitate workshops.

Fighting workplace harassment and discrimination

A 2020 article by McKinsey & Company entitled LGBTQ+ voices: Learning from lived experiences highlighted research from a survey of 2,000 employees worldwide. 37 per cent of LGBTQ+ respondents said they felt uncomfortable after coming out at work. Some 40 per cent of LGBTQ+ women polled said they had to provide extra evidence of their competency.

Trans and nonbinary respondents were far more likely than cisgender people to be in entry-level positions. Many said they faced microaggressions at work such as hearing disapproving remarks. More than 60 per cent said they felt the need to correct colleagues’ assumptions about their lives.

“A lot of organizations are only now learning the social justice language,” Ms. Peters says, and that can result in workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts that fall short in practice.

Since its inception in 2020, Black Femme Legal has helped Black queer women, femmes and gender diverse workers facing sexual harassment, unpaid wages, discrimination and microaggressions to navigate the legal system. It’s the only organization in Canada to provide legal and workplace-related resources and support to this demographic specifically, Ms. Peters says. They also provide community supports and resources for precarious and vulnerable workers.

The toolkit includes detailed information on how to navigate complicated systems, such as the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC). It includes information on how to unionize or file a claim with the Ontario Ministry of Labour. There are also legal clinic and law firm referrals, as well as non-legal resources such as organizations that offer crisis and healing supports.

Helping workers feel ‘confident and supported’

Ms. Peters gives an example of her firm’s work: After experiencing multiple forms of anti-Black racism in their workplace, a non-binary Black queer femme working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) turned to Black Femme Legal for help.

The Black Femme Legal team provided the STEM worker with legal and non-legal resources so that “they could define justice on their own terms.” As a result, Ms. Peters says they felt confident and supported in their decision-making.

While this kind of support for individuals can make a big difference in their lives, Ms. Peters points out that for change to be effective, it must be across systems.

“Our advocacy work is all about calling for changes to support Black and Black LGBTQ2 folks through effective workplace policies and legislative reforms. Transformative [legal] shifts that trickle down to governments, organizations and communities are key,” she says. “But I also think employers do have a responsibility to ensure their workplaces are safe and healthy.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I’ve recently returned from maternity leave and I feel like my workplace has gone topsy-turvy. Where I used to be a top performer with the most important projects, now I’m getting the dregs. No responsibility, no opportunity to shine. I feel like I’ve been quietly demoted, and I want the chance to show what I’m still capable of. Can I compel my employer to give me my old responsibilities back?

We asked Joanne Burton, consultant, careers solutions at LHH in Toronto to field this one:

While Ontario’s Employment Standards Act regulates pregnancy and parental leaves of absence, the devil really is in the details.

As a rule, an employee who takes a pregnancy or parental leave is entitled to the same job they had before the leave began, or a comparable job if the prior job no longer exists. The employee must be paid at least as much as they were earning before the leave. If wages for the job went up during the leave or would have gone up if they hadn’t been on leave, the employer must pay the higher wage when the employee returns from leave.

In 2021, advocacy group Moms at Work surveyed more than 1,000 Canadian women who had taken maternity leave in the last 10 years. Seventy-nine per cent of respondents said their return to work could have been managed better, and 40 per cent of respondents considered quitting their jobs during the return-to-work process.

Fifty-eight per cent of respondents said their workplaces do not have formal parental leave and return to work policies, while the same percentage said their employer wasn’t prepared for their return to work.

Finally, the survey found 33 per cent of respondents reported discrimination as a mother in the workplace including denial of opportunities to develop professionally, secure a new role or advance within the organization.

As you can see from these survey results, you are not alone in your situation. Know your rights. If you are unaware of substantive organizational changes that have impacted your position or influenced the change you are experiencing, ask questions. Speak with your manager. If you are in a Union or have an HR representative at your workplace, ask for their support.

If you remain unsatisfied, consider legal advice.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.