By Martha Hall Findlay
In the Globe and Mail

December 18, 2017

It’s not just Harvey Weinstein, it’s not just the entertainment business – it’s in business everywhere. It’s about power and sex and intimidation. And it needs to stop.

The first step is admitting there’s a problem. Unfortunately, Corporate Canada doesn’t want to go there.

More than nine in 10 Canadian corporate leaders say sexual harassment isn’t a problem at their company. Are they kidding? (Of note, 95 per cent of the 153 Canadian executives interviewed for the most recent C-Suite survey were men.)

This level of ignorance is astounding. Apparently our corporate leaders are truly just unaware (shameful); willfully blind (and therefore complicit); or are aggressors themselves. They clearly haven’t bothered to ask their own staff about the issue. Three separate surveys of Canadian workers this year have found sexual harassment to be rampant in Canadian workplaces.

Surveys such as these illustrate what many Canadians – especially women – already know: sexism and sexual harassment are a problem in workplaces across the country.

I know this is true. I know many women who have endured it – and I also know because it has happened to me.

Let me say this before I go on – I have no regrets. Indeed, I am the person I am because of the combination of both the challenges I have had to deal with and the opportunities that I have been lucky enough to have. This is not a whine. This is just a description of a reality that others shouldn’t have to deal with.

What happened to me is something I have never before made public. The difference now is partly that there’s some safety in the numbers of people coming forward – but mostly it’s because I no longer need the jobs I needed then. Many, many others still can’t speak out.

I didn’t encounter this problem until I was in my 30s. As a teenager, I had the good fortune of working on a construction site where the guys (I was the only female) treated me more with curiosity than anything, but were happy to teach a kid who was keen to learn the trades. Later, as a law school graduate, I was lucky to be hired by a law firm that was very diverse – in terms of race, culture and gender – and I never felt that my being a woman would be a barrier to fulfilling any career aspirations.

Unfortunately, I found myself being intolerant, critical even, of women who spoke of problems elsewhere. They were too sensitive, I thought; they needed to thicken their skins; they needed to know how to take a joke. After all, things were fine for me. Little did I know what was really happening out there.

Later in my career, I came to understand all too well.

I remember the day I met a new boss and was left physically shaken. He’d given me the once over – that gaze, from head to toe, appraising my appearance. I felt like a horse. Was he going to check my teeth, too? All this before he had even stood up from behind his desk to shake hands.

Shortly thereafter, this new boss walked by my office and slowed down, noticing that my administrative assistant was male. When he came back, I had moved to the admin desk to do something with the computer, while my assistant had moved into my office and was putting away books behind my desk.

In a voice loud enough for many colleagues to hear, the just-arrived new senior executive bellowed, “Now THIS is how it’s supposed to be!”

This was humiliating for both me and my assistant, but, ultimately, not so serious – it was a ‘get over it’ moment.

However, within six months of his arrival, the three most senior women in the company, myself included, had departed. We left quietly. No one made any complaint. It was just clear we would have no future there. We were all good at our jobs – it was the company’s loss as well as ours.

Later in my career, I joined an organization where (impressively, I thought) a number of the executive team were women. They seemed happy with their jobs, the company and the boss. Satisfied on that score, and the potential pay opportunities, I took the job. I was offered two alternatives – a significant salary, with a small bonus, or a smaller salary but a much bigger bonus potential based on performance. Until then I had always performed well, and confidently chose the latter.

Not long into my tenure, the boss made a pass at me. Then another. Then another.

I refused the several advances, and I worked hard. Yet after earning my full bonus, according to our agreed-upon criteria, he simply didn’t pay it to me. None of it. I was devastated – and with three kids at home, a lot poorer than I should have been. I could easily have taken him to court and won. But I did not say anything. I did not complain. I was afraid of the potential repercussions, being labelled in the business community as a whiner and limiting my chances of getting hired anywhere else.

Like so many other business women who encounter this kind of thing, I just left, quietly, to start my own company. At least there I was able to succeed on my own merits. And at least I, unlike so many others, had the choice.

The glass ceiling is not just about discrimination; it’s also about being denied success if you don’t play the “power-sex game.” That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing an increased number of women starting their own businesses. The humiliations and career barriers tied to acquiescing to sex – or not – are so frustratingly common in the corporate environment that a lot of women simply go it alone, or if they can’t, suffer in silence. But who wins?

For all those reading this who want their businesses to succeed: Don’t wait for people to go through this kind of thing and leave your company. Despite the increased willingness of victims to speak up, far many more never will.

What can Canadian business leaders do? First and foremost, do not rely on those suffering from the problem to complain. It should be obvious by now that this is very difficult. Ask your staff about these issues. Hire someone from outside to conduct a staff survey to ensure that the responses are open and honest. Once you have those survey results, do something about it. Don’t expect the victims to do your work. Establish a culture that makes it clear that power-sex behaviour will be cause for immediate termination. Put it in your HR policies and employment contracts. Make it zero-tolerance.

If any chief executive is reluctant to do so – because nine out of 10 apparently don’t think it’s a problem – the board of directors should insist.

We have to get to a place where corporate culture vilifies the villains, not the victims.

Martha Hall Findlay is president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation.