Life after #MeToo

Women embracing opportunities – but bracing for backlash

Life after #MeToo
Panel participants from left to right: Lori McIntosh, Brooke Leland, Shelley Martin, Marcy Graham and Josianne Legare. Credit: Marcel Vander Wier

International Women’s Day had a different vibe this year, thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement that has rocked the globe over recent months.

Sparked by the fall of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein on charges of sexual harassment, the social media campaign celebrating truth-telling has continued unabated, with sexual abuse victims around the world sharing their personal stories.

#MeToo thrust gender equity squarely into the spotlight, and the pace of societal change has been spellbinding, according to Brooke Leland, senior vice-president and Canadian general manager at marketing communications company Cossette.

“Honestly, we are so damn lucky to be women in Canada in 2018, it’s insane,” she said, speaking at a Network of Executive Women (NEW) event in Toronto on March 7.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unabashed advocacy for women on boards, more female entrepreneurs, and modernization in maternity and paternity leaves is significant, said Leland.

“In that regard, it’s actually been amazing, and it’s going to be amazing for the next 10 or 20 years.”

Leland was part of a four-women panel discussing the effects of the #MeToo movement on female leaders, ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.

New workplace norms

The #MeToo movement has shifted the landscape in the workplace towards a more transparent culture built on mutual respect between genders, according to Leland.

“In the past, women have been told to laugh it off. ‘Just don’t be a complainer, just keep it to yourself,’” she said. “The #MeToo movement has been all about truth-telling… and lack of fear in being vocal.”

“Women are being fêted for ratting out these individuals, and the individuals are feeling the repercussions,” said Leland. “It was always a risk being a squeaky wheel or complainer, but I feel like it’s changed now and that there’s a celebration of this truth-telling.”

#MeToo is about much more than sexual harassment in the workplace, she said.

“Just to set the record straight, it’s not necessarily about sex. It’s about power. (As women), we have to be aware of our power-mongering, as well.”

“We’ve got the same responsibilities,” said Leland. “You can’t be a bully… 100 per cent, the #MeToo movement applies to women and men.”

Nevertheless, the movement has given women confidence to speak up regarding inappropriate acts they may have experienced, said Shelley Martin, CEO of Nestlé Canada.

“No one deserves to be in any situation — professionally or personally — where there’s anything going on that isn’t right or doesn’t make you comfortable,” she said. “I’m hoping that #MeToo just enables that.”

And while women have been emboldened, they now need to make the most of the opportunity to advance their careers and the cause, said Josianne Legare, senior vice-president of sales at Lassonde, a Canadian agri-food company.

“We have a stronger voice now and we need to use it,” she said. “We need to speak up if we have any new ideas and apply for the next role up — don’t be afraid, take some risks.”

Proactive employers would be wise to remember men as well, said Martin. While women need to look out for one another, men and minorities also need to remain on the radar.

“Empowering women includes empowering men — particularly fathers and young fathers,” she said, citing flex hours or remote work to accommodate various needs.

“We need to advocate for equality, regardless of the situation,” said Martin. “It’s not just about gender diversity, it’s about all levels of diversity — that neutralizes the conversation.”

Pushing boundaries

Twenty years ago, harassment was still a common experience for women, according to the panel.

Leland recounted an experience where a colleague exposed himself while she was employed as a bartender, while Legare recalled making sales calls to store managers who had nude posters fixed to the walls of their offices. One even requested she sit on his lap prior to him signing off on a sale — an inappropriate request she ultimately denied.

While society has been slowly evolving towards gender equality, #MeToo has sped up the pace of change, said Marcy Graham, vice-president of sales at Mondelez, a multinational snack company.

The result has been a liberation of sorts for working women, she said.

“Step up and ask for what you want… It’s your time now. Take it and enjoy it.”

“We continue to progress, and we’ve got to figure out how we can progress faster,” said Graham. “That’s the challenge that we’ve got to address as a collective.”

While companies work towards implementing proactive policy and zero-tolerance culture, gender issues remain in harder-to-see areas such as corporate activities on the golf course — a sport still dominated by men, said Martin.

“That’s still part of an expected social and networking thing in the industry,” she said.

Ontario legislation aimed at pay transparency adds another wrinkle to the gender equity conversation, said panel moderator Lori McIntosh, founder and CEO of consultancy company Vim and Vixin.

“This is something that we need to pay enormous attention to,” she said. “You really need to understand how to handle and have these conversations and, most importantly, advocate for yourself.”

Navigating mentorships

One unfortunate result of the movement could be the increased reluctance of men to mentor the careers of younger women, said Legare.

“I hope that in a male-dominated industry, males don’t hesitate to mentor middle-level managers, female managers, because of the #MeToo movement — because it’s important,” she said. “Everyone needs to take part in it. We all need to mentor young males and females, because we need diversity.”

Choosing the right mentor helps, said Legare.

“It’s important to find someone who’s like-minded and shares the same values as you have, and the same goals for yourself.”

While formal mentorship programs continue to provide opportunity for scheduled events, such as discussion over coffee, informal mentorships built organically with trusted colleagues are also beneficial, said Graham.

“Formal mentoring, I’m not a huge advocate of. The thing that helped me the most is finding those informal mentors within your network.”

Battling backlash

If not addressed appropriately, the #MeToo movement could actually jeopardize opportunities for women, according to McIntosh. In the meantime, female leaders need to keep the faith when their colleagues attempt to quell change by labelling it as aggressive, she said.

“It’s an amazing compliment,” said McIntosh. “Don’t change a thing, just keep doing and acting.”

“Obviously, you have to be mature about it. You’re not going to go in and be a bull in a china shop. Pick your spots. Be clear and succinct with your ideas and your comments.”

Some CEOs have chosen to follow in the footsteps of U.S. vice-president Mike Pence, who has consistently refused to meet with a woman alone, she said.

“That’s not exciting to me. Having a chaperone is really unfortunate,” said McIntosh. “There’s some big things that we still really need to overcome… This is about building a foundation for future generations.”

Pence’s actions reveal a different type of gender bias, while the risk of false accusations and the associated fallout also loom large in terms of the #MeToo movement’s future, according to Martin.

“That is the negative part of this whole type of conversation.”

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