Marilynn Hay (she/her) is a municipal advisor with the Province of Nova Scotia and has been in this role since November 2019. She initially took a leave of absence from her role as a Municipal Advisor with the Kananaskis Improvement District (KID), Alberta Environment and Parks but has since left that position. With the KID, Marilynn was employed as a Municipal Advisor and spent a year acting in a dual role of Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and Manager of Emergency Services within the Kananaskis Region. She identifies as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community. I reached Marilynn at her home office in Halifax, Nova Scotia to discuss her experience as an LGBTQ2S+ woman working in conservation.
What was your professional career path?
I went to St. Francis Xavier University on a hockey scholarship and took B.Sc. Environmental Science and Biology. I finished university and came back home to Sombra, ON (south of Sarnia) to the realization that I might not be accepted by friends and family and that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with myself. So, I went back to Nova Scotia and did an internship on an organic farm for just under six months, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. It was also quite a lot of time alone which was helpful for self-discovery and thinking, which I did not necessarily want to do. When the internship finished, I moved back to Sombra for a short while before accepting a job as an Environmental Coordinator north of Fort MacKay at Kearl Oil Sands. Following this position, I moved to Calgary and started my career with the Government of Alberta working as a Water Technician, processing applications under the Water Act. I eventually applied to a Municipal Advisor job within Alberta Parks. I was looking for something different and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. At that time my now wife and I were living in Calgary and we were looking to move East. I wanted something that I would be able to transfer province to province. I worked in the municipal advisor position for about a year and then took on the CAO / Manager of Emergency Services role in an acting capacity for nearly a year. That led to where I am now, working as a Municipal Advisor for the Province of Nova Scotia.
What motivates you in your work and what are your professional goals?
I like being challenged and learning new things. With this current job, it’s a new province, new legislation, and new historical issues. I’m able to learn more about the area and have an impact on municipal government. I’m trying not to focus as much on the day-to-day operations or minor issues but rather look at what the projections are long term and thinking about what the community will be like for the people who don’t live here yet.
When originally moving to Nova Scotia, I was on a one-year term and my goal was to have a better work-life balance and take the new position in stride. I went from working between 40 to 80 hours a week to now working more closely to my allotted hours. The goals of moving were to try something completely different in a different province. I wanted to see Nova Scotia and visit family and friends more, so part of the reason we took this opportunity was to be closer to family. Overall, it was a very well timed and successful move.
I have secured a permanent position with the Province of Nova Scotia and will be revisiting my professional goals as the move and the pandemic have altered some of my thinking of what’s important and where I want to be.
Whatever is next, the important part will be having an appropriate and healthy work-life balance. Especially working from home more these days, it’s become even more challenging to separate your personal and work life. Revisiting this balance and making sure my dedication to work isn’t creeping too far into my personal life is a goal I will carry on regardless of what path I take. I enjoy work but it’s not the only thing that keeps me going.
Can you speak about your personal journey into the LGBTQ2S+ community?
Coming from a small town, I didn’t have an open mind and was raised around a lot of homophobic attitudes and this was prior to realizing that I was part of the LGBTQ community. I unfortunately had a difficult time accepting it myself and ultimately wasn’t able to come out myself. It was announced and made public by other individuals, which was not ideal. I wasn’t ready at the time and looking back, there would have been other ways that I probably would have gone about it.
I spoke a little bit about going to the farm. At the time I didn’t see it as an escape, but it gave me time to realize and reflect on who I was a little bit more. I had two mentors on the farm that taught me some really incredible skills that at the time I thought were farming skills, but they were life skills such as communication, acceptance, and openness.
I wouldn’t say I had the worst experience. I have rekindled my relationships with most of my family and my friends. I’m at a stage now, and definitely wasn’t early on, that I am who I am, and I don’t spend my time and energy on those who don’t accept it. My wife is welcome with all of my friends and family. We had an amazing wedding last year and everyone we invited was very supportive. Our wedding was a huge recognition of how far we’ve come and how lucky we are having our friends and family there.
Shortly after our engagement I realized I had never explicitly had a conversation with my grandma. We’re pretty close and it was important to me that I told her my wife and I got engaged which was quite difficult considering I had never told her directly that we were dating. This was upsetting and challenging for me, and I didn’t call to tell her. I was so afraid of what she may say or how she’d react, so I wrote her a letter and included a couple of photos of my wife and I. She called me, and she said, “I got this letter, nice pictures”. I had worked this up in my head for so long and I’m certain she already knew, but I had never addressed it. It turns out, to her there was nothing to address. It was just for me to get it out in the open with her.
This is something that I don’t really talk about that often because now we’re just so fortunate. Other than starting new jobs, it’s not really a conversation because most people that I spend my time with are already aware and are unphased.
It’s been almost 11 years from the time that I announced my first girlfriend for the first time, which was terrifying, to now happily and comfortably introducing people to my wife. I’m hoping that in another 5 years this is a non-conversation. People, whether they’re 10, 15 or 20 years old, won’t have to have this announcement of ‘I’m now with a woman’. It shouldn’t be a thing in my opinion.
How has your LGBTQ2S+ identity affected your professional journey and your career path?
When I was working in northern Alberta, I worked with all men, with the exception of maybe four or five women in the field crews of hundreds. The things people will do and say up north or in camp, I doubt they would ever act that way in front of their family and friends. Hearing some of the conversations when I was out in the field about how they spoke about women, same sex relationships, etc., I was not about to tell them that I had a girlfriend. Cat calling and inappropriate comments were not uncommon. I was told by the camp staff that I couldn’t wear a tank top to the gym or the cafeteria because it was against their policy, and I realized quickly that I would be objectified. I would wake up at five in the morning before shift to work out and I would not go to the gym after work. I hate working out in the morning, but I would do that because it felt safer and I felt less objectified.
When I first started my career, I told no one anything about my personal life and this has only changed in the past five years. Part of it is just keeping your work and personal life separate, but I also had a terrible experience going into government.
I had started the job in government in January of 2010, and the Winter Olympics would have been shortly after. One day over the lunch hour we were watching the women’s hockey team play and one of the athletes got injured. There was an executive director in the room along with other colleagues and he made a comment that she will go cry to her lesbian lover. That was followed by some very negative comments made by this individual and other colleagues. It is so inappropriate for a leader in any organization to think that was okay. That made me think, at no point am I going to be telling anyone here that I have a girlfriend. Those comments make you immediately start thinking, if they operate like that, what is my boss like? If a promotion comes up, they’re going to look at me and say, no way. It really stuck with me that I couldn’t trust that individual who should be building morale, encouraging staff, getting people to work and see a common goal. If that’s what he’s comfortable saying in front of ten staff members, what are they saying with closer friends.
It also really stuck with me that no one, even the senior leadership in the room, said that his comment was inappropriate, and I was not about to say anything being new to the organization.
At the same job I sat down with the HR representative and I asked if I could put my partner on my benefit plan. They said “yes, what’s his name”, and when I said, “her name”, there was this shock. It’s fine if you said, “what’s his name?”, and I said, “her name is…”. But to comment after the fact “Oh, I didn’t expect that”, puts me in a position where I need to now justify it. I’ve worked with some folks under the same department and I’ve had anything from “you’re too good looking to be a lesbian” to “what a waste”. I’ve had instances where I wore heels to the office and people commented “no you’re a lesbian, you can’t wear heels”. Also, people will make the assumption and determination that I’m a lesbian without ever having that conversation with me. Regardless how I identify, that’s none of their business nor should it impact how I am treated at a place of employment.
Those were senior people within what is now the Department of Alberta Environment and Parks. I’ve had other instances of male colleagues telling me to smile when I walk by, or assuming that because I’m a woman that’s lower than them on the organizational chart they can tell me what to do even though I don’t report to them. I have had some conversations with friends and colleagues that identify within the LGBTQ2S+ community and they’ve made formal complaints about these kinds of comments, but they get told “don’t worry about him” or “just ignore him” and nothing ever changes.
When I moved over to the municipal advisor role within the same department, the individuals I worked with for the most part were very different from those I worked with in my previous roles. Most people didn’t care when I referred to my girlfriend, except for a few instances. The comments were extreme. They were either no reaction or not concerned to the other extreme of “why are you wearing a tie, you’re female?”, to “you have a girlfriend? Oh good, so you won’t have kids”. People would assume that because I had a girlfriend, I wouldn’t have kids and they could get more work out of me (work extra hours, not go on maternity leave, etc.).
From when I started my career to now, I am more comfortable talking about it with my colleagues and if they don’t accept it, that’s their problem and not mine. I believe in my values and sticking up for other people within the community or any marginalized group.
Overall, I’ve experienced hurtful comments, which I’m sure if you ask anyone who’s part of the community and/or a woman, they’d say the same. I’ve been told in a performance review that I was too assertive, and I don’t see the gray area. I asked for examples and there were no examples given because it wasn’t about how I carry myself or my demeanor or my professional work, it was about the fact that I had an argument with a fellow male colleague, and I was not backing down. This made my supervisor very uncomfortable and it was clear favorites were picked. They were not used to that, or perhaps caught off guard, interacting with a confident female that was standing their ground. Unfortunately, this came up in my performance review, which is very unfair and very unprofessional in my opinion given such an interaction or situation would never appear on a male’s performance review. In fact, a similar response would be praised.
Is there anything in particular that drove you to respond to our call for interviewees?
I think that this is really important work, documenting stories and experiences. I have a very different trajectory and path to the next person you’ll talk to, but there’s probably a lot of commonalities and similarities about our experiences as women in parks. Having mainly worked in male-dominated fields, I have competed in male-dominated fields. I think it’s really awesome that you’re giving a voice to not only the community but also to women specifically and the combinations therein.
A trusted friend and ally informed me of the interviews and given the respect I have for the individual and the opportunity to inform others to make the workplace a better place, I thought I’d reach out.
There’s a lot of momentum behind women leadership and the LGBTQ2S+ community and getting stories out there, but also making it known that these things aren’t uncommon. When people hear these stories and ask, “why would anyone ask you that?”, this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time these uncomfortable conversations will be had.
Parks is seen as a loving place but unfortunately the old boys’ club is still alive and well. I think the younger generation and the women in leadership are a force to be reckoned with. I was one of the first women invited for the Parks hockey team, but it may have been because they were short people. I tried to convince another woman in Parks to go and she said “no, that’s a men’s tournament”. Breaking down these barriers and demanding to be treated as an equal is important. There were a bunch of provincial and national parks with teams there and the men are making connections. I don’t think those networks are always favourable to women. After the first game, I think they realized I could play hockey. A guy joining the hockey team would never have to prove themselves, but a woman entering into a ‘men’s game’ would have to. Similar expectations are placed on women in professional settings.
Are there any specific barriers to the LGBTQ2S+ community going to parks and working in parks that you see?
It goes back to the old boys’ club, that trickles down into everything including your hiring practices. There are mechanisms in place to make interviews more unbiased, but at the end of the day if someone comes in and looks like you and sounds like you and has the same values as you, there’s a higher chance that you’re going to be swayed to hire that person. Recognizing that having a diverse workforce is important given that there is a diverse group of visitors who enjoy what Parks have to offer.
I think another barrier would be if I’m a female and I come in and I’m very assertive, and you’ve never dealt with someone that’s a female and is confident, educated, and can speak their mind and stick up for themselves, you might be turned off by that. Getting more of the community represented and a more diverse group within parks is really important. If you see that the senior leadership of any organization is all white men, they might only be hiring white men, and that doesn’t reflect the population. A lot of the barriers that we talked about today are the comments, the passive aggressiveness, the “we are open, but only to a select few”.
What is one thing that you think Parks should know that they may not want to hear about the LGBTQ2S+ experience in parks?
The thing that they likely don’t want to hear is that Parks is not as open as they like to portray themselves. They need to empower individuals that may not necessarily be the highest on the organizational chart and make the workplace more inclusive and less judgemental. You can portray yourself however you want but if the individuals that are part of the community are telling you it’s not a great place to live or work, it impacts their stress levels and ultimately their productivity. If you make the workplace a place that people want to go to, where they feel comfortable and themselves, it’s not only going to be good for the individuals, it’s going to be good for the organization. Marginalized groups have endured unique challenges and experiences that others haven’t and there’s opportunity to hear what they have to say and channel it in a positive manner. You can make training mandatory for inclusivity and diversity but until it’s actually reflected from everyone’s actions, I think there’s a lot of work to be done still.