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Raise Your Voice: How Lunch With Arlene Dickinson Changed the Conversation on Sexual Harassment

The moment every event producer fears is when the room is brimming with over 900 eager and excited attendees; speaker takes the stage; leans into the podium and says, “I’m going to do something a little different today…”

(Hold breath, hold breath, hold breath.)

This is what happened to me yesterday. Arlene Dickinson, a favoured woman of influence in our community, leaned into the podium and said those exact words, closely followed by “I’m going to talk about sexual harassment.”

“Oh boy,” I thought. “Here we go.”

Arlene is one of the most successful women in our country, a celebrity entrepreneur, a voice for women and a voice for entrepreneurs. She picked our forum to use that voice: Not only to address a topic that is top of mind for our nation ,but also to share her own personal experiences of being sexually harassed.

I spent the better part of her speech worried. Worried that this was not the right forum for this address, that people came here to be inspired about business, and that they would be upset that it wasn’t what they wanted; but more so, worried that this would make some people in the room uncomfortable. By the end of the speech I recognized that this line of thinking was part of the problem.

Arlene’s message was one of sharing to connect and unite us, but most importantly to advance us.

It made me reconsider some advice I’d given recently, when I recommended to a peer that she NOT share her story of sexual harassment at work because I didn’t think it was appropriate or considerate to her current employer. In so doing, did I give more authority to the accused? More power to the problem?

I have made my life and my living about bringing female role models into the spotlight to share their stories, so that we can be successful as a gender. This wasn’t any different. This was the right forum for us to talk and leverage the power of sharing our voice.

As Arlene quoted, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”
—Leonardo da Vinci

The talk hit home for me, when Arlene, visibly choking on the well of emotions this was bringing up, thanked those who gave her strength, and thanked those who give strength in general to others who feel they aren’t worth it; like they have no voice, no value, or no options. When someone feels this way, and someone else chooses to use their strength to believe in you, and support you, it makes success possible, it makes people like Arlene possible, and me possible. It can help an entrepreneur grow; it can pull a woman out of a bad situation; it can help someone stand taller and it can help you go on. It can help you advance.

Isn’t that what organizations like mine are all about?

The call to action here is for this generation, our generation, to not let this go on. Arlene did inspire us yesterday by sharing her opinion that “while we all know that businesses need to make a profit to run, it doesn’t have to at the expense of other people.”

They say the reason that so many women don’t report their harassment is because they don’t feel safe to do so. I didn’t feel safe even supporting the conversation at our event, but Arlene has given us that strength as a result of sharing her story. #power2speak

Arlene said, “The only story worth telling is your own.” And I agree. Her story empowered us all.

At the conclusion of the speech, there was a standing ovation and an immediate line up at the podium — a sure signal that she had struck a chord. During the Q&A, 6 women shared their own story of sexual harassment, one leading with “What a risk. Bravo!” I’ll say! What I heard from their stories was that many other women had similar experiences to Arlene in the workplace; from being expected to go the “extra mile” for a promotion or a client or put up with, quite frankly, inappropriate behaviour.

Arlene didn’t just talk about her rise to the top today, she didn’t just talk about being a woman of influence, she showed us what they look like, she walked the walk and used her voice to influence and ignite a change through the power of sharing.

It was ironic that on every seat was a copy of this week’s issue of Maclean’s magazine featuring Jian Ghomeshi with the headline “How he got away with it,” an in-your-face reminder of the relevancy of the topic at hand.

As people left the room I scanned the expressions and first responses of all who were there; from board directors to aspiring young leaders, and the response was consistent:

  • This may not be what people came here for today, but perhaps it was what they needed.
  • It was the right message and the right forum.
  • It’s the same as using our voice to celebrate female entrepreneurship and women’s advancement.
  • Why do we as women question our confidence and our voice? Why do we shy away from authority in the face of conflict or being disruptive?
  • 90% of women in the room will have had a similar experience as Arlene, and now they can go on knowing they are not alone, that if women like Arlene can go on to achieve greatness, then they can too.

Thank you, Arlene, for sharing your voice and your influence with us today.