Allegations that a popular television news anchor in Canada lost her job after “going grey” have prompted anger and disbelief, casting one of the country’s largest media organizations into turmoil and highlighting the rigid expectations facing women in the workforce.
In a two-minute video posted on Twitter on Monday, Lisa LaFlamme announced she had been ousted as anchor of CTV National News, one of the country’s most-watched evening shows.
In the clip, which has since been viewed more than 4m times, LaFlamme said she was “blindsided” by the decision to end her contract.
“I’m still shocked and saddened,” she said. “At 58, I still thought I’d have a lot more time to tell more of the stories that impact our daily lives.”
LaFlamme, who started hosting the flagship show in 2011, was one of many women who stopped dyeing her hair during the pandemic, and allowed her natural hair color to show. LaFlamme called the decision “liberating” and told viewers she wished she had made the move sooner.
But on Thursday, the Globe and Mail reported that Michael Melling, a senior executive at CTV News, had “asked who had approved the decision to ‘let Lisa’s hair go grey'”. Melling and LaFlamme also clashed over journalistic issues before Melling eventually told LaFlamme that her contract was being terminated, the Globe and Mail reported.
LaFlamme has worked for CTV News for the last 35 years, reporting from conflict zones and the sites of devastating natural disasters. She recently won Best News Anchor at the Canadian Screen Awards.
Shock at her departure spread quickly throughout Canadian journalism, with political and business leaders also weighing in.
The former Alberta premier Rachel Notley called LaFlamme “a massive voice in Canadian media” and former environment minister Catherine McKenna called the treatment of the veteran journalist “appallingly shoddy”.
Others alluded to perceptions of sexism and ageism. Arlene Dickinson, a prominent investor, praised LaFlamme for aging “gracefully” on national TV and inspiring others.
“Then the folks at CTV brought their female ageism to work,” Dickinson said.
In a statement, CTV’s parent company, Bell Media, said LaFlamme’s removal as anchor was a response to “changing viewer habits”.
It did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations that LaFlamme’s hair color played a role in her removal.
But at a tense company town hall meeting on Thursday, executives denied LaFlamme’s termination was motivated by her age or gender.
“I’m a woman. I’m a woman. I’ve been here for 25 years. Do you really think that I would fire a woman because she’s a woman?” said senior vice-president Karine Moses after pointed questions from LaFlamme’s executive producer, Rosa Hwang, about why she was dropped.
On Friday, the company said in a statement that it took allegations of discrimination “very seriously” and was taking steps to initiate an independent, third-party internal workplace review. The company also said it “regrets” the way in which it handled LaFlamme’s exit from CTV as it “may have left viewers with the wrong impression” that her three-decade career was not valued by the company.
The furore over LaFlamme’s termination has highlighted the challenges women – even those at the top of their field – face on a daily basis, said Amanda Watson, a sociologist at Simon Fraser University.
“Like many of us, I feel shocked and not surprised,” Watson said. “I have a suspicion that her losing her job because she went gray can’t possibly be what happened. And at the same time, I feel of course that’s what happened… Every time I look in the mirror these days I ask why I’m [colouring my hair]. I don’t have to. I’m a professor!”
Watson said the decision by the network had an undercurrent of misogyny and sent a strong signal about societal expectations to other women.
“Many women won’t get the opportunity to challenge those frontlines of expectation within themselves,” said Watson. “It’s often not an option to stop maintaining one’s body hair when the standards of professionalization make or break someone’s ability to put food on the table.”
Others pointed out an apparent double standard, which allows men to show their age and keep working. Prominent Canadian news anchors like Peter Mansbridge and Lloyd Robertson – whom LaFlamme replaced when he retired at age 77 – enjoyed far longer careers and received carefully produced send-offs.
“This isn’t just that we don’t tolerate aging in public in this kind of position – it’s that we apparently don’t want to look at aging women. We still trust the authority and character and warmth and familiarity and comfort of aging men,” said Watson. “It all just feels like the same story line all over again. It’s a cliche and it’s irritating.”