OTTAWA –One has proudly declared himself a feminist, while the other inspired hundreds of thousands of people to take to city streets in protest of his stances on issues affecting women and girls.
On Monday, there they both were together – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump – saying they needed to find a way to get rid of the systemic obstacles to female participation in the workforce.
“We just had a very productive meeting with women business leaders from the United States and Canada, where we discussed how to secure everything that we know the full power of women can do better than anybody else,” Trump told a joint White House news conference with Trudeau as they wrapped up their first face-to-face meeting.
There was more than one elephant in the room as the pair shook hands and exchanged greetings – dramatically different attitudes towards issues like refugees and climate change, to name but two.
Neither issue earned a mention in the joint communique released Monday; instead, the two leaders chose to emphasize the issue of empowering women.
They announced the Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders, a joint initiative to help women-owned businesses contribute to economic growth, competitiveness and the integration of the two economies.
The measure – along with roundtable talks that included the two leaders, his daughter Ivanka and prominent female entrepreneurs and CEOs – was clearly designed as a win-win for both sides: letting the prime minister broach a thorny issue with the president while helping Trump build badly needed political capital.
A senior Liberal government source said the idea for the roundtable came from Katie Telford, chief of staff to the prime minister – and it was a good one, said Nelson Wiseman, a politics professor at the University of Toronto.
“It takes attention off of NAFTA,” Wiseman said. “And from Trump’s point of view, it contributes to softening Trump’s image, and he’s got a problem with women.”
Both leaders described women as vital to the North American economy – and said they face systemic barriers to reaching their full potential.
“We need policies that help keep women in the workforce and to address the unique barriers faced by female entrepreneurs – and they are unique,” said Trump, who opened the meeting by noting that he had employed several “tremendous” women as executives in his companies prior to becoming president.
“We need to make it easier for women to manage the demands of having both a job and a family.”
Trudeau said that he has heard similar complaints about such barriers, as well as ideas for potential solutions, from the female business leaders he has met on his travels.
“For me, it’s not just about doing the right thing, but understanding that women in leadership can be a very powerful leverage for success for business, for communities and for our entire economy.”
Rachel Curran, who was a policy director under former prime minister Stephen Harper, said there is no doubt that Trump and his team saw political benefit to the roundtable.
“He’s probably capitalizing on some of the credibility the prime minister has built on that front,” said Curran, who is now a senior associate at Harper & Associates, the new international consulting firm run by the former prime minister.
“I think if we’re able to participate in something that helps him look good as well as advances our interests, I think that’s all positive.”
New Democrat MP Sheila Malcolmson, whose party has been pushing Trudeau to be more openly critical of Trump, suggested the cognitive dissonance was too much to bear.
“We also need to call out misogyny and sexual harassment wherever it occurs, from the office to the Oval Office,” Malcolmson said Monday during question period in the House of Commons.
That was a reference to an infamous 2005 video, released last year during the presidential campaign, in which Trump is heard saying that his fame allows him to get away with mistreating women, including grabbing them by their genitals.
“How could the prime minister possibly sit down and discuss women in the workforce with President Trump without first denouncing his misogynist comments?” asked Malcolmson, the NDP critic for status of women.
The council will be made up of 10 female executives – half from Canadian companies and the other half from American companies.
The Canadian members include CEOs Annette Verschuren, of NRStor Inc., Dawn Farrell of TransAlta Corp., Linda Hasenfratz of Linamar Corp. and Tina Lee of T&T Supermarket Inc., as well as Monique Leroux, chair of the board of directors from Investissement Quebec, are also around the table.