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Is an Employer's "Men Only" Event for Its Customers Gender Discrimination?


What if your employer held a "men only" event for its customers, and you, a woman, were excluded? Would you feel that you have been discriminated against? Ok, maybe since you are of the wrong gender, and might feel a bit uncomfortable at the event, you let it go. But after thinking about it more, you complain to your supervisor, and then you are fired. Is it sexual discrimination?

Yes it is, according to a decision issued by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in Ontario, Canada. The facts: Sherie McConaghie was the only female executive at Systemgroup Consulting Inc., a company which designed customized computer applications. Systemgroup sponsored a customer appreciation day that was for men only. It paid for male employees and clients to attend a ski event called "Men's Day", where the brochure advertised "A Day for Men without Women and Children" and the tag line was "Bring your friends, bring your acquaintances, just don't bring your wife!" Systemgroup's electronic calendar invitation to the event listed planned activities including: "massage" and "Hooters Girls."

McConaghie was not invited to "Men's Day" because she was a woman, and was informed of the details of the event from one of her male customers. She complained about the event to both her immediate supervisor and the company president, neither of whom found the gender-exclusive event to be inappropriate. Following her complaint, McConaghie was excluded from important meetings and networking opportunities and eventually she was fired. She filed a claim alleging that her exclusion from "Men's Day" constituted discrimination on the basis of sex and that her termination (and the events leading up to it) amounted to retaliation for exercising her rights under the Human Rights Code (which is very similar to the New York City Human Rights Law).

The court found that the purpose of "Men's Day" was to strengthen relationships between the employer's sales associates and their customers and concluded that:

By holding a customer appreciation event that excluded the applicant because of her gender, the respondent undercut the applicant's ability to compete on the same playing field as her male peers. It did so without apparent consideration of how her male clients might perceive her exclusion or how it might damage her working relationships; and it did so in a male-dominated industry. In other words, its behaviour perpetuated the belief that supporting women sales professionals in interacting with clients is less valuable or important than supporting male sales professionals.

With regard to the retaliation claim, the court held that while there was no direct evidence of intent to retaliate, the proximity between the complaint and the termination was sufficient to establish an adverse inference – an inference that the employer could not explain away.

The court awarded the lost value of the "Men's Day" event ($150 ticket price), wages for the applicant's period of unemployment, and damages of $18,000 as compensation for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.

The takeaway? If you are employed in an industry that is heavily weighted toward one gender or the other and you are excluded from company functions because you are of the opposite gender, you may have a claim for gender discrimination. If you complain and are subsequently fired, you certainly would have a claim for retaliation.

If you feel you have been a victim of gender discrimination in the workplace, contact the attorneys at Schwartz and Perry LLP.
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