Blogs & Comment

Trudeau and Trump’s “women’s summit” was symbolic. That’s why it matters

The two men got the headlines, but the real potential in the new Canada-U.S. brain trust of women business leaders will be revealed after the cameras leave

Linda Hasenfratz, Justin Trudeau, Ivanka Trump, Dawn Farrell

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, at a White House roundtable on women in the workforce with President Donald Trump. Linamar CEO Linda Hasenfratz is on Trudeau’s right; on his left are Ivanka Trump and TransAlta Corp. CEO Dawn Farrell.

On Monday, a dozen-odd high-achieving women took a meeting with two very powerful men. The guest list included the several of the most successful people in the Canadian business community: GE Canada CEO Elyse Allan, Linamar CEO Linda Hasenfratz, T&T Supermarket’s Tina Lee, NRStor’s Annette Verschuren, GM board member Carol Stephenson, and foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland. Other titans in attendance included Schnitzer Steel’s Tamara Lundgren and Accenture’s Julie Sweet. Also there? U.S. President Donald Trump and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, midway through their first day of meetings with one another since the former took office in January.

They were all there for a roundtable discussion intended to kick off a new binational effort called the “United States Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders-Female Entrepreneurs”, an awkwardly-named effort with the broad mandate of advancing women in the workplace. It featured statements from both Trump and Trudeau, some high-level discussions, and photos. Lots and lots of photos.

The meeting was obviously intended to make its participants look good. It gives President Trump, a man with—how to put this diplomatically?—a problematic record when it comes to women, ammunition in his tepid efforts to prove that no one respects women more than he does. (“We need policies that help keep women in the workforce and to address the unique barriers faced by female entrepreneurs,” he told meeting delegates). It gives Trump’s daughter and advisor, Ivanka—an entrepreneur and advocate for women in the workplace who organized and attended the roundtable—a chance to change the conversation surrounding her embattled apparel brand, which retailers such as Nordstrom, Macy’s and Sears have dropped. As for Trudeau, a self-declared feminist, the meeting squares nicely with the “gender parity matters” message that has underpinned his rhetoric since he awarded half his cabinet positions to women in 2015.

Critics pounced, slamming the meeting as, among other things, little more than PR puffery. The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti questioned whether it was “pinkwashing.” National Post columnist Andrew Coyne argued that the meeting served to normalize Trump’s history of sexual harassment.

Those criticisms are fair. The persistent lack of anything approaching gender equity in the overwhelming majority of workplaces today is perhaps the most glaring failure of modern capitalism. It’s very easy to roll one’s eyes at the earnest “we’re gonna fix it, for real, this time” proclamations of politicians when history has proven this to be an issue that sits, perennially, maddeningly, pretty low on the priority list of the people most equipped to solve it.

But if we accept that Monday’s meeting was at least in part grandstanding, we can move on to the fact it’s at least the right kind of grandstanding. One of the very first acts of business between two of the most powerful people on Earth—a duo whose to-do list involves addressing pretty fundamental disagreements on, among other things, the trade relationship that supports both economies—was to commit, publicly and unequivocally, to tackling an issue that affects literally half of each of their constituencies. These optics matter. Just because something is symbolic does not mean it is hollow. The challenge, of course, will be in making it happen.

Which leads to the real reason the women’s roundtable might actually change things: Sitting around the table were a group of capable, smart, accomplished businesswomen who defied all manner of odds to get there. There are few people better equipped to fight uphill battles and get things done. Now that the cameras have left and the politicians have moved on, they can get to work.