Discrimination remains a pervasive issue for women in the workplace. According to Statistics Canada, 44.8% of women have encountered some form of workplace discrimination. And increasingly, those cases of discrimination are mediated by the courts. The Canadian Human Rights Commission received 763 complaints in 2022, with sex-based discrimination or harassment being among the top three reasons for the complaint. While this shows that women are speaking out against discrimination, distinguishing whether an incident constitutes discrimination poses a significant challenge. A recent study by Professors Laura Doering, Jan Doering, and András Tilcsik delves into the obscure realm of gender-based discrimination, focusing on the ambiguity surrounding potentially discriminatory experiences and its repercussions for women. This study finds that women encounter ambiguous incidents of discrimination more often than clearly discriminatory ones. But these ambiguous situations do not lead to overreporting by women, as is often assumed. Instead, women engage in extensive cognitive work to navigate the ambiguity and assess whether their experiences really involve discrimination or not.
Ambiguous incidents are events or interactions perceived by women as potentially discriminating. In those incidents, women lack the necessary information to say for certain whether the incident can be attributed to their characteristics and behaviors or to them as a member of a marginalized group (which would be discrimination). Ranging from everyday microaggressions to infrequent but substantial events such as missing a promotion, these incidents have unclear motives and contextual nuances that obscure intent.
For instance, consider the scenario where supervisor Logan promotes Aretha’s junior male colleague but not Aretha. Aretha knows that her colleague recently moved from another position where he was in a much more senior role. At the same time, Aretha had let her supervisor know that she is hoping for a promotion and the supervisor validated her efforts and aspirations. The supervisor’s intent is unclear: perhaps Logan has made the male colleague a promise for promotion upon acceptance of his job. But perhaps Logan prefers to fill more senior roles with men over women. And at the same time, the lack of clear promotion guidelines makes it difficult to evaluate whether the colleague was truly more deserving of the promotion than Aretha. Other examples of ambiguous incidents involve discounting, overlooking, or ignoring contributions made by women.
When faced with ambiguous discrimination, women tend to alter their work habits…or self-representation instead of reporting the incident.
Doering, Doering, and Tilcsik conducted interviews with 31 professional women in the United States and found that such ambiguous incidents are highly prevalent. In fact, in a conversation with Jan Doering, he pointed out that he was surprised at how often these incidents occur. As he puts it, “we really struck a nerve with participants when we asked them in interviews about their experience with ambiguous incidents. The response and interest were very strong – you don’t always have that. And what emerged was that while perceived experiences of discrimination were very prevalent, ambiguous incidents were even more so!” Their study substantiated this finding with quantitative data, revealing that ambiguous incidents are more common than obviously discriminating ones. In their follow-up survey of 600 college-educated women professionals, 74.17% reported experiencing an ambiguous incident at least once over the course of a year, while 64.17% reported experiencing obvious discrimination.
The second key takeaway from the study is that women invest significant cognitive effort in navigating ambiguity before reporting an incident. Doering notes, “Women engage in a lot of work behind the scenes before they speak up. And that’s really important to point out. Because, while the public discourse is sometimes concerned about woman making false attributions, our evidence suggests that women don’t complain too much. In fact, women are actually not quick at all to point toward discrimination.”
The level of ambiguity of an incident significantly influences a woman’s reaction. After conducting interviews, the researchers designed another study through which they documented women professionals’ anticipated responses to situations with different degrees of ambiguity. The researchers found that women are much more hesitant to talk to others about the incident or report it to the human resources department if they experience an ambiguous incident compared to a clear case of discrimination. When faced with ambiguous discrimination, women tend to alter their work habits (and in some cases their workplaces) or self-representation instead of reporting the incident. This entails, for example, working harder, drawing a supervisor’s attention to their accomplishments, or communicating more formally.
“…while the public discourse is sometimes concerned about woman making false attributions, our evidence suggests that women don’t complain too much. In fact, women are actually not quick at all to point toward discrimination.”
Addressing the issue requires a shift in focus from merely encouraging reporting to fostering dialogues and raising awareness about the frequency of ambiguous incidents. Doering says that enabling more open conversations and raising awareness about the prevalence of potential incidents of discrimination may be a first important step to help increase women’s willingness to talk about such incidents. An open exchange of experiences may both help women make sense of the incident and help them reduce the ambiguity.
Another important structural change the organization can implement is related to transparency. Many ambiguous incidents are linked to attribution of merit or promotions. An employer can reduce ambiguity simply by being more transparent about their processes and expectations. This can enable women to better evaluate incidents, like the promotion scenario involving Aretha.
Simultaneously, there is a need for a deeper understanding of women’s unique experiences in the workplace. Doering emphasizes that the next important question to address is how women can effectively voice their concerns and contest ambiguous incidents. Additionally, he suggests exploring the role of facilitated conversations or open spaces, considering their potential to play a pivotal role in improving women’s experiences in the workplace.
 Statistics Canada, General Social Survey – Social Identity, 2020
 2022 CHRC Annual Report – By the numbers (chrcreport.ca) and personal email exchange with CHRC
Note: the quotes in this article have been reframed for readability and approved by Jan Doering.
Research brief prepared by:
Manuela R. Collis