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 has 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.

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."

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Comments

I think this article fails to understand the fear that generates this reaction to the 'Me Too' movement. The male executives are not afraid that they will be tempted into misconduct by the proximity of women. They are afraid that they will be accused of sexual misconduct through the misinterpretation of a a friendly word or gesture by an overly sensitive woman. All it takes is an accusation, even an anonymous one, to torpedo a career. How many careers have been destroyed by accusations that are never tested or proven in court? I don't think the 'Me Too' movement has seriously affected career opportunities for women, it has just exposed the requirement for new protocols for relationships between men and women. Perhaps we should all wear body cams at work.

Someone is really tone deaf at the National Observer running this photo with this article. Really, National Observer? Where is your editor?

This article raises a number of points worth comment:
While I fully support the move towards ending inappropriate actions by males towards females in business offices or elsewhere, I had to laugh at the photo of Sunira Chaudhri at the top of this article of all places. Although the way a women dresses is no excuse for inappropriate male actions, it behoves women (and men for that matter) in business to dress in a way that says "I'm an executive" or "I'm a professional", not "I'm a women" or "I'm a guy". The later two should be reserved for personal time after hours in my opinion. It doesn't matter if you're male or female, our dress does serve to project an image to others about ourselves, and it would be to the advantage of women and men wanting to get ahead in business on the basis of their skills and not their bodies to keep that in mind.

On the issue of the suggested over-reaction of male execs, it should be kept in mind that these men got where they are by being risk-adverse and taking great care to maintain a squeaky clean reputation. They don't want to be in a position where their reputation could be held up for subtle ransom. They know the business world can be very rough and unfair, and so they take no chances. After all, it's not just males that can be unscrupulous. For these reasons, I doubt these actions are a backlash against women trying to get ahead, rather it's simply a reaction to the fact a new risk has arisen that in the past could have been safely swept under the carpet (unfortunately). In that sense, this reaction by execs shows in a real way that the MeTo movement has teeth and has to be taken seriously. As the "bad apples" are swept out of the business community, I'm sure a more relaxed norm will slowly assert itself, but in the meantime, both males and females will have to take extra care to err on the side of caution and refrain from any activities that could be misinterpreted. Rather than blaming women for this state of affairs, we should blame the "bad apples" that created the need for MeTo in the first place.

As for the glass ceiling and the "old boys club", that's definitely a tough nut to crack. That club also excludes highly competent men who would rather go home to their families at the close of normal business hours instead of engaging in the endless drinking schmoozing and ass-kissing required to gain access to the executive suite. It also excludes both sexes on the basis of who they don't know. Because this ceiling is a social one, it cannot be eliminated with various affirmative action strategies, as we've seen from a history of ineffective results. The thing about the "old boy's club" is that it's there to prop up incompetent insiders. My own believe is that government actions should instead be focused on increasing corporate competition through the aggressive removal of any traces of noncompetitive, or monopolistic markets, including the reduction of legislated patent periods to periods adequate only to cover development costs, and to improve the odds of new initiatives entering existing markets. Anybody who thinks our current markets are fully competitive needs new glasses. In this way businesses would be forced by competitive market pressure to move away from the promotion of social contacts and people that "think like us" to the most competent person to help the company survive. Any company who didn't aggressively implement such a policy effectively would be swept aside and replaced by one that did. It's much easier and more effective to let the strongest forces in the world deal with this problem.

This is the sanest and most accurate assessment of this subject. Thank you. I also agree that the photo is not... professionally oriented? I would consider the "corporate" reactions identified in the article as vengeful rather being overcautious. It gives the impression of hitting back rather worrying about professional conduct. Brought about by someone or a group with a guilty conscience? As it was so well said: It's simply professionalism and respect - not some complex etiquette rules.

J Scarrow's first point, that dress matters, is important. The test of a woman's or man's appropriate, professional apparel is if their choices would be okay for the opposite sex.

For example, how many watching the news want male news anchors and reporters to be in sleeveless tops, or very low-cut necklines, or shorts half-way up their thighs? If the majority would like this and not wonder why seeing so much flesh matters in that context, then it's fair enough for women to reveal so much.

Another example: if P.M. Trudeau wore clothes as skimpy and form-hugging as Ministers Freeland's and McKenna's, would that be okay in meetings and photo op's? My god, he got into trouble for draping himself in Bollywood style. Imagine if his usual business dress was the equivalent to that of the woman in the photo heading his article.

A double standard is a double standard. Women are trying to break many of them in male-dominated arenas, and many cheers for that. Will they be able to get male colleagues to switch to wearing minimal, body-revealing outfits, when those clothes have nothing to do with what's at hand and at stake, and further, don't suit the season or the air-conditioned venues? (I often wonder if the professional women in their tiny get-ups are cold, when the men are covered from chin to toes and wrists, or are the women so hot-blooded that they need to stay stripped down?) My bets are resoundingly no, and women may do better to get savvy about this, rather than keep trying to control how people view their minimal, shapely outfits in contexts where no one needs to notice, in the least, their curves, bare limbs, and 6" stilettos.

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