TORONTO — A lawyer is asked whether a male executive should leave the door open when meeting with a woman.
A consultant’s longtime male client will only take a meeting with her if someone else is in the room.
A public relations executive hears from senior business leaders who say they are shying away from mentoring young women.
The revelations relayed to The Canadian Press about being a woman in corporate Canada in recent months offer a glimpse into a male-dominated workforce that is quietly grappling with the unintended consequences of the Me Too movement.
The movement emerged late last year following a slew of sexual misconduct allegations against film industry heavyweight Harvey Weinstein and other high profile American businessmen. Allegations of inappropriate behaviour have spread to a range of sectors north of the border as well — from politics to theatre to sports — but leaders in corporate Canada have so far been left unscathed.
Still, women in business say they are facing a resulting “chilling effect” on their relationships with male colleagues and supervisors.
They reported a noticeable decline in invitations to meetings, business trips and dinners — gatherings considered invaluable for career advancement.
More importantly, they added, senior executives are increasingly hesitant to mentor female employees.
It is a development that poses a threat to women who aim to rise to the highest corporate roles at a time when two-thirds of the companies included on the TSX 60 index of Canada’s largest companies did not include a single woman among top earners last year, according to a Canadian Press analysis.
Most of the dozen women who spoke with The Canadian Press were hesitant to discuss the unintended consequences of Me Too because they didn’t want to detract from the progress they hope the movement will make towards improving opportunities for women.
They fear the misguided actions of some male leaders could instead reinforce the door to the old boys’ club, further hindering the hard-fought progress made by the few women able to climb to the top of the corporate ladder.
Chaperones at business meetings
Lori McIntosh flew to Miami in early spring to meet with a client of 12 years, only to be told the company no longer allows its executives to take meetings alone, including with her.
The founder of business consulting and executive search company Vim and Vixin said she agreed to the new terms because “business is business” and she was determined not to let the policy stand in the way of her company or career.
“It is the new reality, but why should having someone in the room with me and the CEO hold me back?”
Toronto employment lawyer Sunira Chaudhri has fielded an increasing number of calls from her corporate clients worried about sexual harassment in their workplace — mostly from those wondering whether they need to change policies around co-ed one-on-one meetings, mentorship, office parties, business trips and dinners.
“Some asked, ‘Should we be having the boardroom door open if it is just me and a female alone in a room?'” Chaudhri said.
“Holiday parties were a huge issue too and of course, business travel is big as well because often you are sitting side-by-side 12 to 16 hours a day and you are not just working together, you are eating together, you are staying at the same hotel, consuming alcohol, entertaining clients, it can make for a very intimate scenario.”
While Chaudhri has seen some workplaces show concern around how they should be handling business travel or dinners after Me Too, she said many small- and medium-sized workplaces don’t have the resources to formally train workers and managers around handling sexual harassment or office dynamics.
Others, she said, simply don’t have the nerve.
“Forget about serious misconduct. Employers are still afraid about confronting that person that shows up at 9:05 every day, when they are supposed to be in at nine.”
Lisa Kimmel, the Toronto-based president and chief executive officer of public relations and consultancy company Edelman, said she has had conversations with “a number of senior male business leaders in Canada,” who told her they were shying away from providing mentorship to female subordinates “out of fear of what might potentially happen” and in an effort to “reduce their risk profile to zero.”
“When I first started hearing this, I had a literal allergic reaction,” Kimmel said.
“Once the anger subsided, I realized that I wanted to raise awareness around this issue because if that is the way that they feel, it means it might be a step backwards for (women) in terms of their advancements of their own careers.”
To stamp out such repercussions, Kimmel started hosting discussions between men and women in Edelman’s offices, in which employees were encouraged to be honest about their feelings around Me Too and ask questions about what is acceptable.
But many women questioned why conversations about drawing a line suddenly need to be had and why boundaries aren’t already clear to some.
Sarah Kaplan, director of the University of Toronto’s Institute for Gender and the Economy, worries that focusing on such unintended consequences will prompt people to wonder if the Me Too movement has gone too far.
In her opinion, it hasn’t gone far enough.
“It is just one more way that even an effort to lead to more liberation and equality has been co-opted,” she said.
“It is as if people don’t understand what they shouldn’t be doing. As long as you don’t grab someone or proposition them, you can take someone to lunch…It is completely obvious how to be professional.”