Latest from Kathleen


We’ve seen an almost endless procession of headlines chronicling the downfall of luminaries over allegations of sexual misconduct. Actors, producers, broadcasters, comedians and even chefs have all walked into this spreading fan of public outrage.

Then there are the miscreants in the U.S. Congress. Closer to home, and in the span of 24 hours, Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown, Nova Scotia Conservative leader Jamie Baillie and federal Liberal cabinet minister Kent Hehr all abruptly resigned following allegations of improper behaviour. 

And we haven’t even begun to tally what goes on in the everyday workplace, where millions of women face the epidemic of sexual misconduct without the benefit of cameras or reporters to witness the damage.

Want to really change this picture? Start here: since governments set the rules for the rest of the workplace and are among our largest employers, they should take the lead in setting the right tone —a zero tolerance tone— for sexual misconduct. But as scandals in, for example, the RCMP  reveal, our public institutions are among the biggest offenders.

I’ve seen that movie.

It began when I was sexually assaulted by a prominent government official at an out-of-town conference of Canadian securities regulators. But I was sure that my boss —the chief operating officer of the government agency where I worked— would make every effort to support me and hold my offender accountable. Instead, he tried to bully me into dropping the matter. Every time I raised it, he cut me off with a tone full of annoyance and resentment.

A few months later, he made a number of inappropriate comments during a performance discussion. To say the least, the demands he made of me would never have been made of a man. When I objected, he flew into a rage.

This time, I decided to report what happened to the human resources department. 

My government employer did the exact opposite of what its anti-harassment policy called for. There was no investigation. I was demoted. I was still required to interact with my harasser. And I was made to feel like an outcast —even by my female colleagues. The situation became unbearable. What happened next is what occurs in too many cases where the media are not there to shine their big spotlight: I left; my harasser stayed.

Here’s something else I didn’t know: leaving a job is not the end of a sexual misconduct nightmare. It’s only the beginning.

I had an unbroken record of achievement over two decades and a stellar educational background. Still, every opportunity I pursued for employment in my areas of expertise —or anywhere in the government for that matter— led to a dead end. Likewise for private sector efforts that required references from my previous employer. The reprisal writing was clearly on the job-search wall. My repeated pleas to the highest level of the government to end this ongoing retaliation were met with silence. 

Women often encounter retaliation when they stand up against sexual misconduct.  It can be career ending. That’s a big reason why so many, especially those in low-skill, low-wage jobs who live from paycheck to paycheck, are hostage to abusive bosses and are too afraid to speak out. Unfortunately, lawmakers don’t want to turn retaliation into a criminal matter, as I have long advocated. That would go a long way toward curbing reprisals.

Over the years, I’ve heard from hundreds of women who wanted to share their stories. Every one told me that if they had known about the personal pain and financial costs of pursuing a complaint, they would not have spoken out. Most were never able to resume their chosen careers and recount shocking stories about vindictive bosses and employers. Financial problems were common. Many suffered disabling health issues and some even considered suicide.

Society can’t afford to see so many talented women frozen out of the workplace. 

Here’s an action plan for governments developed by the Zero Now Campaign, the advocacy group I founded, that will make a difference in the real-world workplace. The private sector is more than welcome to join in.

1. Make governments at all levels disclose sexual misconduct statistics. It’s said that humans and subatomic particles behave differently when they’re being watched. But when it comes to dealing with sexual misconduct in the workplace, there is absolutely no transparency. Right now, we have no idea how many women have filed complaints, for example, in the RCMP, on Parliament Hill, or at Queen’s Park. It’s time for a sunshine law requiring every public law-making and legislative body, as well as all government-funded departments, boards, commissions, and agencies, universities and hospitals, to publish annual statistics on the number of incidents reported to them, the outcome of each complaint and any financial settlement paid.

2. End non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).  Women who report sexual misconduct often find themselves forced to sign an NDA at various stages of an investigation. These devices amount to a gag order that protects offenders and preserves the reputation of their frequently enabling organizations. They allow too many employers to hide behind a cloak of invisibility and treat sexual misconduct as just another cost of doing business. They make it impossible for women to speak out and protect other women, or to explain to a prospective employer why job references have been tainted.

3. Hire survivors of sexual misconduct. Despite what you read about the recent downfall of figures like broadcasting legend Charlie Rose and former U.S. senator Al Franken, in typical cases it is the victim of sexual harassment who winds up leaving the organization. As I have been advocating for the past several years, it’s time for a high-profile campaign by our best employers, especially public sector employers, to hire the survivors whose lives and careers have been shattered because of sexual misconduct. I call it Hire Us Back.

If this is really a period of reckoning, we’ll need more than shocking headlines and glamorous black-dress galas. We need change that can really be seen and felt among the forgotten women in the everyday workplace.