Eight women share their stories of sexism, harassment and assault at work
Bill O’Reilly. Harvey Weinstein. Charlie Rose. Despite the Me Too reckoning underway south of the border, corporate Canada has yet to fully confront sexual discrimination, harassment and assault in the workplace.
We get it. Talking about this stuff is difficult, for both the women who’ve lived it and the men worried about how their own actions might be construed through the Me Too lens. But this is an issue corporate Canada needs to tackle. Consider this: One in two Canadian women have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a 2018 Angus Reid survey, and 89% say they use strategies to avoid unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. Yet, in a survey late last year of 153 Canadian executives—95% of whom were male—the Gandalf Group reported that 94% said sexual harassment was not a problem at their companies.
It is a problem, and not just for women. Sexual misconduct is also a business risk. For Weinstein, it meant corporate bankruptcy. But it can also mean litigation and settlement costs, reputational harm, losses in productivity, and challenges in attracting and retaining talent. Indeed, there’s no way to know how many capable women have been driven out of their jobs—or entire sectors—because of this type of behaviour. The upper ranks of most companies are a largely male domain. Among Canada’s top 100 companies by revenue, just four are run by women, and only three of the 100 largest firms have achieved gender parity on their boards, according to Catalyst. Yet the business case for gender diversity is clear: Catalyst has found that companies with more female directors outperform their peers on major metrics, including return on equity and return on sales. And as a recent Harvard Business Review article noted, harassment “flourishes in workplaces where men dominate in management and women have little power.”
We reached out to dozens of organizations and individuals to find women willing to share their Me Too moments. We found eight women who told us their stories, ranging from subtle (and not-so-subtle) sexism to outright assault at work.
When I was 25, so 15 years ago, I’d been working as a design engineer for one of the Big Three in Detroit, and I got the opportunity to move to an assembly plant in Ontario to launch a new vehicle. It was a really big deal, considering I was one of the younger engineers. I’d initially been turned down because I was too green. Then a manager at the plant—a man I’d worked with before—offered me the job anyway. I jumped at it, thinking, This is so cool. I’ve been hired because of the great work I did for him before.
For the next 18 months, he sexually harassed me on a daily basis.
I’d moved by myself to Toronto—I had no family or friends here—and within a couple of weeks, I could sense a bit of tension about me joining this group. I was one of only two female engineers on the team and one of very few in the entire plant. I found out later that my boss had been saying, “I’m hiring this young, hot redhead. You’ll love her.” That was the start of it.
He was 25 years older than me, and he had no problem flirting with me. One day, I came into work with a purple sweater on, and I had just bought new makeup. I was talking to him—“Hey, this report needs to get filed, work, work, work”—and he said, “I love how your eyeshadow matches your sweater. I just love it.” He was just staring at me, and it was really awkward.
Another time, he said, “I got back from the States last night, and I almost stopped by your place—I bought you a fifth of whisky, your favourite kind.” We both lived downtown, and I was concerned enough that I went to the security desk of my condo and told them that if my boss ever dropped by, they were not to let him in or call me—just say I wasn’t available. That’s how sure I was that he wasn’t joking.
He was a real macho guy and had a really big ego. But he also had a terrible work ethic, and one day I had to cover for him at an important meeting because he just didn’t show up. As I was walking back to my desk, I saw him and said, “Where have you been?” And he looked at me and said, “Oooh, am I in trouble? Are you gonna spank me?”
All the men in the department would tell me, “Christine, you need to report this. This is harassment.” But for 18 months, they watched it happen and never spoke up on my behalf. And I didn’t report it, either. I was so worried about how I would be perceived. I wanted to be tough enough to handle this environment. I kept thinking, I’m such a freaking stereotype. I didn’t want to be the female who complains to HR. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up to work at a plant. But the hundreds of blue-collar guys on the floor were very kind and respectful. I never thought in a million years that harassment would come from my boss.
Fast-forward to the launch, and there were a lot of people up from Michigan, including this really tough female engineer. She, my boss and I were on a conference call with the folks in Detroit, and somebody was asking about one of the issues I had to report on. So I leaned over the table to speak into the phone, and I heard my boss giggling behind me. I turned around and gave him a dirty look, and then leaned back over the table—and he swatted me on the butt with a folder, giggling.
When I walked out of the meeting, I was humiliated. I was beet red. And the female engineer was livid. She told me, “That was completely inappropriate. If you don’t go to HR, I’m going to HR.” Of course it took another female to see it, to recognize it and to do something about it—not for me, necessarily, but for the sake of the company’s culture.
So that day, I finally reported my boss, and HR did a full investigation. Six weeks later, all of a sudden, he was gone. But he didn’t get fired—they demoted him out of management and into a regular engineering job, and tucked him away in a basement research facility back in the States. He got to keep his job because he was so close to retirement, which I think is bullshit. That’s what they felt was a fair repercussion for this.
When I was first hired, I was put into the company’s high-potential program, which had just 50 spots open each year. They paid for my engineering master’s degree and gave me a day off a week to do it. But within six months of the sexual harassment investigation, I left the company. Emotionally, it just wore me out. It took all the fun out of being a hard-working female trying to create a reputation for myself based on hard work. I went into management consulting, and today, because of that experience and a handful of other ones, I spend my days helping companies retain and advance their high-potential women.
The best thing I’ve heard somebody say around Me Too was: “It’s not so much the harassment as it is the abuse of power.” That nailed it for me. We females, we’re not that fragile. We’ve all been at a bar and heard guys talking about a girl’s chest, and we didn’t go cry into our pillows because we couldn’t handle it. It’s about abuse of power. That’s what the Weinstein thing was all about. These women really felt like they needed to have a relationship with him in order to make it in show business.
In my own case, as much as I didn’t like the harassment, I had to work for him. He was my boss. So I didn’t shut it down. I tried to keep things light, because I had to report to him. He did my performance reviews. He was in charge of my raises. All those guys said to me, “You need to tell him to knock it off.” Well, that’s easy for you to say—I reported to him!
This kind of behaviour is why there’s a lack of women in STEM. In university, there were 12 girls in our program. They called us the “Calendar Girls of Engineering.” And at the plant, I always felt like I was the oddball. The guys all went out together and drank, but I had to be very careful not to be the drunk girl at the bar, because I knew it would come back to haunt me. Meanwhile, the guys could get completely bombed, and it didn’t hurt their careers—those were the stories they bonded over.
In the years since, I’ve spent a lot of time consulting with companies on how to retain women, and until the Me Too movement started, as soon as I’d bring up sexual harassment, you’d be amazed at how many people—especially in HR—didn’t want to talk about it. It’s like, “Oh, wait, that’s too controversial.” People are so superficial when they talk about women’s advancement: “Work hard, find a mentor, rah-rah!” But we’re doing women a disservice. We need to tell these stories. This is the harsh reality of being a female in a male-dominated environment./D.C.
I have more than 30 years of experience in the mining industry. As a geoscientist, I’ve lived and worked at mining sites all over the world, including northern Canada, Mongolia, Ghana, Senegal, Romania and South America.
My first job out of university was at a mine in Timmins, Ontario. For three months, the mine manager wouldn’t even let me go underground. When a new chief geologist came in and insisted I be allowed to go underground, the walls of the office I shared with the samplers were suddenly papered with pornography. I would take them down, and they’d come up again. I tried to talk to the guys about it, and finally one of them threatened me—if I ever touched those pictures again, they were going to put my hand in the rock crusher and break all my fingers. It was very intimidating, and my manager already didn’t want a woman at the site, so there was no support. But I’m stubborn, and I wasn’t going to let them chase me away.
Remote mine sites can be some of the most challenging. You’re so outnumbered, with everybody watching and commenting on every aspect of what you do. As a woman, you’re aware of where everyone is—just vigilant, constantly. It wears you down.
I once spent two months at a camp in Ghana with 100 to 150 men. There was not another woman in the whole camp. And the room they gave me was outside the main compound, exposed to the road. Every morning, 300 fieldworkers would gather outside my door to get their assignments for the day. I had no solid curtains, and it felt very uncomfortable. Just walking into the eating area—there was no welcome. If I sat down, they moved away. It was very isolating.
I also spent a year in Venezuela with a crew of diamond drillers, which is a highly masculinized industry. They’d talk about the way they were treating women in the community, and it was horrifying to have no power—or what I perceived as no power. There were local women, typically from very poor communities, who thought they were in “serious” relationships with drillers. They would turn up at the site to find out their “boyfriend” had gone back to Canada. The drillers had no regard for them as human beings.
I’ve talked to some men about difficult situations they’ve observed where they didn’t know what to do. We need to encourage men to overcome the discomfort associated with speaking out. Yet most of the companies I dealt with at the time were Canadian, using Canadian drillers. And I’d have conversations with management about the culture that was allowed to develop at these sites and to offer more education. But I hear from other female geologists that not much has changed. It’s great that organizations and companies are trying to get more women interested in the mining industry, but until we change the culture, my feeling is they’re not going to stay.
That was one of my motivations for starting the Me Too Mining Association. I’ve seen what I call the cult of personality in a lot of mining companies, where the CEO is very aggressive or a bully and the women just tend to leave. It’s a small industry, and there are already so few women in it. And the mentality is that if you stick your head up, it’s going to get chopped off./T.G. Photo: Lindsay Siu
I didn’t become ambitious until I was in my 40s, when I started to look at the men who were running the agencies and said, “I think I could do better—I’m going to go for it.” Interestingly, I did it all within the halls of Ogilvy, which says a lot about the organization and the opportunities it gives women. I finally got the corner office a year and a half ago, after 15 years as a managing director. There are a lot of women in the advertising industry, but there aren’t as many running an office in the Ogilvy network (which is in 155 countries), so I’m pretty proud of that. And here in Toronto, I can name at least four other women running agencies, which says a lot about Canada’s commitment to diversity and gender equality.
I haven’t been the victim of overt physical or sexual harassment, but the sexism—yes. And those entrenched stereotypes and the resulting behaviours have made me angry.
Early in my career, I had a boss who would have me do all the work and then present it as his own at meetings, where I would be relegated to changing slides in the projector. It was shockingly bad behaviour. Or if I was dealing with a particularly cantankerous client, the guys around the office—my peers and bosses—would say, “Oh, the reason you get along with him is because he really wants to get in your pants.” And that’s not right. That’s inappropriate. I had a couple of women who stood up for me, and that helped me develop the courage to stand up for myself.
But just last week, I was giving a personal history, and the interviewer asked what I did. I told him I worked in advertising, and this guy looked at me and said, “Oh, in admin?” And I went, “No—actually, I run the joint.” In 2018, this is happening.
I’m a “don’t get angry, get even” person. Now, I coach women on how to behave in the boardroom to elevate their status and overcome bias, to take a position of power at the table. For instance, I tell them not to be afraid to get up and move around—it indicates confidence, instead of sitting hunkered down, checking your notes. Speak early and often, because it establishes that you’re part of the group. And use first names—it speaks to a certain authority and confidence that seems to work in the boardroom.
We also need to give women permission to be ambitious. If we start to be too aggressive in our asks, if we get very pointed in our discussions, we come off as being bitchy. A guy comes off as being assertive.
Here at Ogilvy, they’ve created a robust female sponsorship program to help women drive their aspirations and make connections. But our industry also has the power to make change happen on a broader scale. Consider a campaign we just finished for Kimberly-Clark’s Kotex brand. It’s all about exposing stereotypes attached to women who are on their period—that they’re irrational. Women are responding to it, and the campaign is winning awards in both Canada and the U.S., because it’s revealing a stigma women have to endure in the workplace./T.G.
I started working as a teller with a major Canadian bank in St. Lucia in 1994, and then moved on to become a customer service rep and personal banking officer. Sexual harassment is so prevalent in the Caribbean that it becomes normalized in the workplace, which is scary. But you come to accept it, and you know who to avoid, how to navigate the halls, who not to sit next to. I experienced it from someone in a senior leadership position—inappropriate comments and touching, as well.
When this happened, I definitely shrank. My self-doubt and self-criticism increased. I always dressed appropriately for the office, but I was extra-cautious—I thought that how I dressed was the reason I was targeted, not once but twice. I played small, taking up less space, not speaking up much for fear of engaging in conversation with certain people. If you say the wrong thing, will it be misconstrued as leading people on?
I moved to Toronto in 2003 and decided to start my first business. Being an immigrant here and not knowing many people, someone introduced me to a leader in the Black community. After a couple of meetings with him, it was very clear how he expected me to show my gratitude: with a touch on the knee, his hand on my leg. And I remember being so repulsed and, at the same time, so disappointed.
I didn’t tell anyone at the time. He was such a well-known figure, who was going to believe me? I just kind of withdrew from it all. It’s another barrier for women, especially women of colour—if you can’t trust your own circle, in your own area, then where do you go?
Meanwhile, I was still at the bank, and eventually I took on the role of senior project manager for international banking, supporting the Caribbean and Latin America. Some of the men I worked with ignored me when I spoke up or sent an email, or made direct comments like, “Are you sure she can do the work?” or “Look at her, look at how she’s built.” There were a lot of comments around women’s bodies.
It was more blatant in the Caribbean, but up here, the problem was more the sexism and belittling women. And that affects your ability to be creative, to be innovative—it takes a toll on your well-being. Especially as a woman of colour, you already have to be on guard every day because of race and gender, and then again because of harassment.
I learned so much at the bank, but in the end, I decided it was time to go, with grace. Now, in my work as a leadership coach and mentor, the majority of my clients are racialized women. I teach them how to avoid thinking traps, leverage skills better, speak up for themselves and advocate better for each other. A lot of us are so afraid of being labelled. If I speak up, am I being the “angry Black girl”?
Having more diversity in leadership is definitely one of the steps companies can take to address these issues. Representation matters. Organizations can say inclusion is a priority, but if your senior team does not reflect the people you serve, then it’s smoke and mirrors.
Me Too is in workplaces now. It has seeped in. And organizations that ignore it will lose some very high-calibre talent. You see more and more high-potential employees leaving, and it’s not because of salary—it is because they don’t feel valued or they’re facing harassment, sexism and racism.
We can say, “Be all you can be, show up, lean in, negotiate a bigger salary.” But I’ve always said we can’t truly empower women and girls if we don’t talk about the elephant in the room. When the people who wield the power are people who abuse that power and take advantage of our silence, who do you turn to? /T.G.
Being a non-technical person in a tech environment, you sometimes find yourself hovering on the outskirts of all these brilliant minds. Even though you have a lot to offer, you doubt yourself. And when bad things happen in the workplace, it shakes up your whole opinion of yourself.
I was a senior talent manager at a Toronto-based tech firm, responsible for scaling the team, and for its diversity and inclusion initiatives. A year in, I had earned a promotion to director of talent. A few days before it was officially announced, I went to one of our weekly Friday night socials—people would stay late at the office, having some drinks. I live outside the city, so I didn’t usually go out after work, but this evening I stayed a bit longer, probably because I was happy about the promotion.
One of my colleagues was being a bit handsy—putting his hand up my shirt and rubbing my lower back, making suggestive comments. I just remember being completely still, looking at the faces of the people all around us, wondering if they were seeing this. I tried my best not to act weird or do anything out of the ordinary.
In an attempt to separate myself, I went to the storage closet to get more chips and snacks. He followed me into the closet, and he assaulted me.
Your initial reaction, when something like that happens, is to challenge your own credibility. Is it because I’m ditzy or because of how I dress? Am I too provocative? Was I being too flirty? Did I invite it? Did I make him feel like he could do that? Was it because I initially didn’t say no when he touched my back and stroked my leg—is that why he thought it was okay?
But the fact is, when I said no in that closet, he didn’t stop. And I found myself in survival mode, trying to talk him down. There was a bit of a tussle, and I was far more concerned about keeping the incident secret, while trying to protect myself, than making a scene.
The following Monday, I sat with my executive sponsor and the company’s CEO, and I shared what happened. The CEO was nothing but supportive and understanding. His first response was a heartfelt apology for what I had gone through, followed by him saying that “being nice isn’t an invitation.” Then he apologized again, thanked me for my bravery and said he was going to support me.
On Tuesday, I went in to work. The individual reached out to me on Slack, but I didn’t respond. On Wednesday, he was let go. So it was the perfect situation: I had shared my story with the CEO; I was absolutely supported and believed; I had complete confidentiality; and the person was let go from the organization quickly. In the landscape of incidents similar to mine, I felt lucky.
But him being fired didn’t change that it happened to me. It didn’t change that I had to sit in front of my CEO, struggling to speak, in tears. It didn’t change the fact that it completely spoiled my promotion. And it didn’t change how I feel now about interacting with men at work, to be honest. I went from being extremely social to removing myself from social gatherings that used to make me feel connected to people and that are necessary for my job.
I’ve also been a victim of domestic violence and sexual assault in my personal life. So to have this happen at work—which should be a safe space, where we can earn a living with respect and support—made it that much more painful. It felt like there was no place I could feel safe, and I got to the point where I had a complete...what could only be described as a mental breakdown. I was crying uncontrollably. I was having panic attacks on my way to work. I was paranoid and anxious there. I also developed insomnia. I wasn’t eating properly. I had to go on anxiety medication, which I’d never done before. It impacted every part of my life. So last year, I went on a leave of absence.
When I returned to work, things just weren’t the same. I had lost my groove. Every day I went into that office, I felt triggered, so I ended up leaving a company I really loved, where I had close friendships, was on a strong growth trajectory, and felt trusted and valued.
I can’t change what that one man did. But companies need to act swiftly when they see any bad behaviour and provide better support if something does happen. They have an obligation to make work a safe and inclusive space for everyone. That’s when we’ll see a shift in sexual misconduct in the workplace and can better support the people who fall victim to it. /T.G.
I’ve had men say inappropriate things to me throughout my career—as recently as yesterday, at a meeting with a male CEO.
Once, when I was two years into my career, I was on a business trip with my boss, and as we were having dinner, he said, “Just so you know, I would love to f--- you.” I looked at him and said, without skipping a beat, “You will never have the opportunity to f--- me, to be clear.” And then we moved on. I worked there for another year, but I never forgot that exchange.
When I look back on it now, I should have thought about how he might be behaving with other women. The poor woman who replaced me—I don’t know what he did to her, but she ended up filing a sexual harassment suit against him. You owe it to other women not to let men get away with that kind of behaviour, because not everyone is equipped to defend themselves.
The Me Too movement has been a wake-up call for many organizations to take action. On the other hand, I’ve also heard it has resulted in men retrenching from mentoring female subordinates out of fear. But men dominate leadership roles—the meeting I was at yesterday was attended by 120 Canadian CEOs, and there were probably just 15 women in that room. So if there’s an absence of male mentorship, how are women going to advance? Men need to be part of the solution. If we don’t figure this out together, the result is going to be further gender polarization.
Effective leaders have to be comfortable with discomfort, and this is an uncomfortable topic. But I believe leaders have a responsibility to determine whether there is an issue within their organization around harassment or gender inequality. And if there is, they need to figure out how to address it. /T.G.
I got into the construction industry because I joined my husband’s masonry firm. I grew to love the business, but of course there was always discrimination—whistling, cat calls, nudie pictures on the walls, remarks like, “What would you know—have you ever been on the scaffold?” I sat on a board years ago, and they called me the token woman. I remember one supplier offered to take the board on a bus trip to Toronto. And they told me, “Oh, you wouldn’t want to come—we’re stopping at a strip club.”
Before working in construction, I worked in media, and there was much more harassment in that industry than in construction. Though I remember one engineer whose office was next to mine. I was always intimidated to walk past his door, for fear of him making comments or following me. I didn’t stay late if he was there and avoided going anywhere near him. There really wasn’t anyone you could tell, because they were all men. I was very young then. Now I would have no problem confronting the man and making his behaviour known to management.
Many women are looking at skilled trades as a second career, and a few have had a pretty rough time of it. I try to coach them through it—telling them they don’t have to take this kind of behaviour. Even in the interview process, it would be fair to ask, “Do you have a violence and harassment policy, and what’s the protocol in the event I do feel unsafe?’ If a company can’t answer those questions, then don’t work for them./T.G.
Name withheld**due to fear of repercussions because she is still working at the same employer where the harassment occurred
In my case, the complaint process was the worst part of the whole experience.
On three separate occasions, a senior director on my team said wildly inappropriate things to me, drawing parallels between me and his sexual partners. He would give an explicit description of a sexual encounter he’d had, and then say, “Oh, and she was about your age.”
I decided not to do anything, because I had seen what coming forward looked like—I was witness to another incident before this, and I really didn’t like the way it played out. Besides, a lot of people within the department knew this guy acted inappropriately—and not just toward women, but toward men too—and no one ever came forward.
This went on for almost two years, but eventually he backed off. I kept hearing about all these other incidents with other women in the office, though. He’d also show other male colleagues photos of women he’d allegedly slept with or met online, and tell stories about his sexual encounters to subordinates (including during situations that were inescapable, like while they were on the road). It became a running joke in the office.
The men didn’t feel threatened by it, but the women in the office would avoid being alone with him. If another woman hadn’t heard about him, they’d make a point of telling them to avoid him. It became pretty common knowledge.
He was very boisterous and opinionated, and quite aggressive, so he was an intimidating person to decline advances from. He was also extremely commercially successful, and it seemed that the company prioritized that over the comfort of people coming forward. That is part of the reason why this so negatively affected me.
There was one incident that was specifically called to my attention, about another woman who experienced harassment. I decided, “Okay, it’s time to say something.” I brought the complaint to HR in confidence, and after that initial conversation, it ended up going all the way to the CEO, and he felt the need to have a one-on-one meeting with me. Soon the whole leadership team knew, and somehow, the man got tipped off and started asking around to confirm I’d gone to HR. It was very uncomfortable.
The other woman came forward too, and we both asked for certain assurances—that if we were to file an official complaint, he had to stay out of the office during the investigation; that it be speedy and transparent. Our internal counsel agreed, and I went on the record with the complaint.
But then it was like the company did a 180. They delayed notifying the subject of the complaint twice, and even after they’d notified him, they told us he would not, in fact, be asked to stay out of the office during the investigation. The other complainant and I both came forward and told them they were clearly prioritizing his convenience and comfort over ours. Their solution was to tell us they’d make arrangements for us to stay out of the office. But both of us had just started in new roles, and being in the office was pretty critical. Plus, it would cause speculation on why we weren’t there. And it was just the principle of it—we were not the ones who’d acted inappropriately, yet somehow we were being displaced and what felt like disciplined.
It was extremely stressful. You come to work, and you don’t feel valued. You don’t feel safe. You can’t trust that the leadership will do what it says it’s going to do. It affected me more emotionally than I ever thought it would.
In the end, he responded with a written complaint of his own and then quit the next day. I’m pretty sure he left of his own accord. And that is the last I heard from anybody on this. There was no follow-up. The organization was not forced to ride this process out, and the whole reason I did this is the first place wasn’t for myself—it was to prevent it happening to other women. That opportunity went out the door with him. It was a short-term win but a long-term loss.
I was very committed to the company when I first started there. I wanted to move into leadership. To be so committed and to give so much to a place and the one time when you ask for help and it not be reciprocated is a really hard thing to take. It’s for sure personal.
I was depressed for a couple of months afterwards. I started going to therapy, which I’ve never done in my life. I was really hard on myself about it—why couldn’t I be resilient enough to withstand everything that had gone on? I’m only coming around in the last month or so, but I feel so stuck. I have to pay the bills.
To the leaders out there, if you know what’s going on, don’t ignore it. In this day and age, you can’t. People are not going to want to work at your company if they go on Glassdoor and see horror stories from women who’ve been and gone, nor will consumers want to be associated with you./T.G.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.