Last month, Canadian marketing executive Trina Notman was attending the BC Tourism & Hospitality Conference when Vivek Sharma, CEO of Fairmont Hot Springs Resort in the Columbia Valley, and a BC Tourism Board member, opened the gathering on March 9th, International Women’s Day by asking the women in the crowd of 500 to stand. After the applause died down, he said now you can "go clean some rooms and do some dishes." Aghast at these distasteful and sexist remarks, Trina lobbied conference organizers to take action against Sharma, and when they demurred she took to social media. Her courageous actions resulted in Sharma being fired from his job and over a billion media impressions in countries around the world. We chatted with Trina to learn more about what went down and why it's important to speak out.
Set the scene a little bit for us, there were about 500 people in the room, what was the ratio of men to women?
At a glance, I would say it was about 60% women. And also, keep in mind this is our first conference back since our last one in early March 2020. We are all thrilled to be together. I brought a squad of 10 people from our business coming in from all over BC, which we have never done before. Everyone was just beyond excited to be back. No one was expecting to be so widely insulted in the first five minutes. What a letdown.
Not that any of that really matters because what he said, even if it was as a joke, is tasteless and misogynistic. How did the crowd react?
There was a collective groan around the room. Women looked at each other and rolled their eyes as we often do. Everyone was embarrassed. It is so uncomfortable for everyone in the room.
Did you immediately raise the issue with the conference organizers?
Yes. The first thing I did was email the CEOs (both of whom I know) of the two industry associations that put on this conference, The Tourism Industry Association of BC (TIABC) and the BC Hotel Association. I said I would like the opportunity to explain why this isn’t okay and why it can’t be ignored. When I received no response I tweeted about it and when those tweets weren’t getting attention, I took to Linkedin and that post quickly went viral.
Later on in the day and evening, I did have the opportunity to speak with both of them. They were both so upset themselves, but I felt like it was for the wrong reasons. They were mostly concerned that their big conference back would be marred by his comments. They really missed the leadership opportunity to have a meaningful conversation and instead tried to sweep it under the rug.
Speaking with TIABC he said to me, “My only issue with this, is that it can malign our organization.” To which I responded, “The only thing that will malign your organization is how you respond to it.” And unfortunately, they chose to do very little.
What was the moment that made you decide to make this public and take action?
I started right away. I just couldn’t believe he was still on the podium speaking. He should have been removed, but no one did anything. A few minutes after his comments he kinda/sorta/but-not-really apologized. He said it was just a joke and that there were lots of bureaucrats in the room and he wanted to highlight the staffing crisis and he laughed it off. Making us the butt of his joke for the second time. Still, he was allowed to continue speaking at the podium and I was so disgusted that no one was doing anything. It was gross.
Later, on the evening of the first day, Vivek attempted to apologize to me. But when I went to say something and he put his hands up in front of my face and said, “I don’t want you to talk. I just want to give you, my apology.” Which further infuriated me.
Were you afraid?
Not then. In fact, I was surprised when people called me brave because I did not see the danger. I worried I was oblivious to it. In truth, I am speaking from a place of privilege because I am well employed with a company that loves me and has my back. I knew they would support me. In fact, my CEO was asked by the CEO of TIABC to get me to stand down and she told him no.
Fifteen years ago I would not have done so much because that room was full of employers. I would have been worried about being labeled a shit-disturber. Now I know anyone who wouldn’t want to hire me because of this, I wouldn’t want to work for.
Throughout my journey of speaking out, I did learn what Brene Brown calls a “vulnerability hangover” is and that was when I was my most scared.
Tell me about that, what is a "vulnerability hangover"?
I really put myself out there. I was so real in all my posts and comments. I was holding people in power accountable, and I wasn’t mincing words. I would wake up in the middle of the night gasping full of regret that I was so real and honest, and I couldn’t take those words back. I went through that a few times. It passes.
Did you expect it to get international media attention?
I never expected the billions of impressions and international media attention. I did expect local media attention because that started right away. Two things I love about this:
Conference organizers didn’t want our little group of 500 people talking about it and instead billions of conversations around the world are taking place.
If people ever doubt that one voice isn’t enough to be heard, one voice can reverberate around the world.
Yahoo News syndicated it on their platform globally and we have stories from Washington Post, Ottawa Sun, CBC, CTV News, Global News, Daily Hive, just to name a few. Coverage in so many countries including New Zealand, UK, Germany, Singapore, India, China, Ireland, and more.
But it just goes to show that this is fire. These are conversations people want to be having.
Since Sharma was put on probation, it came out that he had a history of sexist and disgusting remarks and yet kept getting hired and held senior positions with all the major tourism organizations in BC, why do you think that is?
I have a real problem with this. When will we start holding our employers accountable? That rape comment to a room of 100 resort workers he made in 2016 where he reportedly said, “The high season is like rape. If it is inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it." At the time he was working at a BC ski resort, and that didn’t get him fired. He didn’t even have to apologize for it. He was let go years later and his employer is quoted in a CBC article saying he had a history of distasteful comments. So what did get him fired?
Now, that he has lost his job, do you have any remorse?
What remorse should I have? I don’t know what got him fired. They hired a third-party investigator who made a report to the board which resulted in his dismissal. I don’t know what was in that report. I don’t know what they discovered. What I do know is I have heard from scores of people who have left employment and have felt victimized by this man. I stand with them.
You’re the vice-president of marketing and communications for Accent Inns and Hotel Zed, how has your employer reacted to your involvement in this chain of events?
With so much support and love. My team here celebrates this. My direct boss is the President of our company and I had a long call with him where I told him the whole story and he told me how impressed he was with what I had done. He is always telling me how proud he is of me.
Mandy Farmer is our CEO and she remembers what it was like for her when she worked the front desk at another hotel chain when she was young and had her butt grabbed. She even said that to the CEO of TIABC when he asked her to get me to stand down. We are done with awkwardly laughing off sexism.
What actions do you think workplaces can take to make it safer for women to speak out?
Having examples like this helps. Hiring the right leaders is as critical as firing the wrong leaders. Employers need to work to create harassment-free workplaces for women. We have an organization in Canada called WORTH Association, which stands for Women of Recreation, Tourism, and Hospitality. They have done so much good work. They offer a free audit for businesses centered on retaining and developing women and harassment-free workplaces are part of that.
I read you recently flew to Ottawa to meet with an octogenarian feminist activist who paved the way for women’s rights in Canada. What did you learn from her?
Oh wow. That was big for me. As a woman in 2022, I almost forgot what women before me have gone through so I can enjoy the rights I have today. She told me so many stories of sexual harassment from the 60s, 70s, and 80s that would make you fall out of your chair. Women went through violation, humiliation, and retribution. What they went through for us is why we can’t give an inch back today. They went through too much for us to let sexism slide in our lives. She reminded me that this month is the 40th anniversary of the Charter of Rights in Freedoms in Canada and back in 1982 women fought hard to have women’s rights enshrined in that document. She said Vivek was stomping all over that Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that is a powerful message.
What advice do you give to other women if they are witnesses to or victims of sexist remarks?
First, know that it is a workplace health and safety issue and you can report it through those channels. Everyone deserves a safe and respectful workplace.
I would like us all to work on deprogramming our default settings. We have ALL awkwardly laughed something off or quietly rolled our eyes. We need to get comfortable with saying something at that moment. That said, we are the victims, and if it causes further hurt to do that, just report it.
Just curious, will you be going to the BC Tourism Conference next year?
Yes, and I will sit near the front. I already went to the Vancouver Island Tourism Conference earlier this month and I wasn’t sure what my reception would be. Women sought me out, I had countless conversations with people thanking me for what I have done and sharing their own stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault openly. These conversations happened in front of good men and they were surprised, which is why it is so important to talk about it. As women, we have this shared collective consciousness that these things happen, but most men do not. A surprised man in the situation is now an educated man.