A B.C. resort executive who made a blatantly sexist comment during a supposed tribute to women at an industry conference has apologized and resigned from multiple boards, but some who were in the audience say there’s still a much bigger problem to tackle.
Vivek Sharma, CEO of Fairmont Hot Springs Resort in the Columbia Valley, made the remarks at the opening of the B.C. Tourism and Hospitality Conference in Richmond on March 9.
According to people who attended the conference, Sharma asked the women in the room to stand in honour of International Women’s Day, but then after a round of applause told them to “go clean some rooms and do some dishes.”
Trina Notman, vice-president of marketing and communications for Accent Hotels and Hotel Zed, was in the audience, and remembers hearing a collective groan at that remark.
“It was shocking. It was embarrassing — he was literally laughing at us. It felt terrible,” she told CBC News.
Notman said Sharma later apologized from the stage in response to the audience reaction.
Public apology acknowledges ‘inappropriate comments’
Six days later, Sharma issued a public apology.
He said sorry in a statement released by the B.C. Hotel Association on Tuesday, saying he “deeply” regretted his “insensitive and inappropriate comments.”
“Not only did my words cause distress for several women in the audience but I also offended many other delegates,” he said.
Sharma announced he was resigning from his positions on the boards of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. (TIABC) and the B.C. Hotel Association (BCHA).
The B.C. Chamber of Commerce says it has also accepted Sharma’s resignation from its board of directors, and according to his LinkedIn profile, he is no longer on the advisory council for Thompson Rivers University’s School of Business and Economics.
Ingrid Jarrett, the president and CEO of the BCHA, said Sharma offered to resign from the boards immediately after his remarks.
‘Real change means real equity’
But Notman says that doesn’t change the lingering issues of inequality within the hospitality and tourism industry, including pay gaps, lack of representation in leadership roles and discriminatory attitudes that affect women and people from other underrepresented groups.
“We’re not going to tolerate this treatment anymore, and we’re going to call for real change. Real change means real equity,” she said.
Sharma did not respond to requests for comment, and multiple executives at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort did not reply to emails from CBC News.
Notman said she took immediate action after hearing Sharma’s remarks, seeking out conference organizers in the hope someone would denounce Sharma’s behaviour from the podium.
“The leaders did nothing. He wasn’t removed from the stage. He wasn’t removed from the conference. He was still there. He was still being celebrated,” she said.
Notman also posted about the incident on LinkedIn and received a flood of comments from conference attendees and people in the industry, along with allegations of previous inappropriate comments by Sharma. CBC News has not been able to verify those accounts.
Industry organizations promise ‘decisive action’
The same evening of Sharma’s remarks, the CEOs of the conference’s two organizers, the TIABC and the BCHA, released a written statement of apology to social media.
It described Sharma’s comments as “a stark reminder of how far we have to go to achieve equality, respect and empowerment for the women of our sector.”
Please see below for an important message from Tourism Industry Association of BC (TIABC) CEO, Walt Judas; and British Columbia Hotel Association President & CEO, Ingrid Jarrett. <a href=”https://t.co/yaW10ZrMqc”>pic.twitter.com/yaW10ZrMqc</a>
The two organizations posted a follow-up statement alongside Sharma’s apology on Tuesday, saying they have “taken decisive action that includes wholeheartedly committing to additional steps to elevate and empower women in tourism and hospitality.”
That statement doesn’t specify what those steps are, but that more will be revealed in the coming months.
In his apology, Sharma said he would use this experience as an opportunity to learn about how to make the industry a “safer place” for women and other underrepresented groups.
“As much as my actions caused harm, industry leaders like me have the opportunity to make amends if given the chance,” Sharma said.
Sharma was the general manager of the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel before being named CEO of the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort.