Is the Trump-Trudeau women’s council real or fake?

If it was nothing more than a photo-op, the ballyhooed White House meeting goes down as another example of female exploitation
From left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ivanka Trump, daughter of President Donald Trump, and TransAlta CEO Dawn Farrell listen during a meeting with women business leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP/CP)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donal Trump listen to women speak during roundtable discussion on the advancement of women entrepreneurs and business leaders at the White House February 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Adam Scotti/PMO)
It looked good at the time, but was the women entrepreneurs’ roundtable mere theatre? (Adam Scotti/PMO)

On February 13, the Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders—let’s call it CUSCFAOWEABL for short—was launched amid much fanfare during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House. Ten CEOs and business leaders—five from the US, five from the Canada—gathered in the Cabinet Room to meet with the prime minister, the president, the president’s daughter Ivanka and sundry government officials. Cameras flashed. Reporters took notes.

The meeting was just 35 minutes, long enough for the women to introduce themselves and make a few remarks. Sadly, no one let it rip. Thus no mention of the unconscionable fact the U.S. remains the only industrialized country without paid family leave. Tamara Lundgren, president and CEO of Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc., summed up the gathering as “interesting, collaborative and positive.”

A joint statement issued by the two governments expressed similar optimism. The bilateral council would address the serious issue of gender imbalance in business, and on entrepreneurship specifically, it said: “We expect this initiative to promote the growth of women-owned enterprises and to further contribute to our overall economic growth and competitiveness, as well as the enhanced integration of our economies,” it read in part.

Trump clearly relished the roundtable, or the cover offered by the progressive imagery. He’d refer to it several times in the following weeks, once during the State of the Union, where Trudeau was given a shout-out: “With the help of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we have formed a council with our neighbours in Canada to help ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to the networks, markets and capital they need to start a business and live out their financial dreams.” Likewise, the “action-oriented” initiative, as the PMO refers to it, was referenced in the government’s 2017 budget read in March. Finance Minister Morneau noted that the council had been convened “to quickly advise us on how we can better empower women entrepreneurs, and remove barriers for women in business.”

So why is it that, more than two months later, CUSCFAOWEABL appears to have vaporized? CUSCFAOWEABL is either AWOL, MIA, or DOA. Which one isn’t clear. In late March, Maclean’s asked the government when the council would next meet. The request was forwarded to Global Affairs Canada, where a spokesman said “nothing is scheduled at the moment.” When asked again this week, a PMO spokesman responded: “I couldn’t give you a specific timing, but it is in the works.” There is no apparent infrastructure, or so much as a dedicated executive assistant, supporting the group. When asked for the name of the coordinator on the U.S. side, the PMO told Maclean’s via email they did not have that information and that it would be best “to try via the [White House]. Maclean’s inquiries to the White House went unanswered.

Emails and telephone calls to women on the council yielded no further insight. Annette Verschuven, CEO of Toronto-based NRStor Inc., an energy storage company, was helpful, noting that timing is an issue. “Why don’t you check with me in a few months,” she wrote. A spokeswoman for Deborah Gillis, CEO of New York City-based Catalyst, a council member who didn’t attend the February meeting, wrote they’ve heard nothing about a second: “They haven’t updated us.”

What is apparent is that having Trudeau and Trump bond over wealthy women in suits was a canny move, as well as a distraction from overhanging NAFTA worries or the president’s self-stated proclivities as a sexual predator. The idea is reported to have come from Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff, who floated it by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and also Dina Powell, the president’s assistant and senior counsellor for economic initiatives.

Of course they agreed. It was a political win-win-win. Trump, whose 22-person cabinet includes only four women, could boast about hiring female executives back in the day. Trudeau could extend his feminist mission south of the border. The greatest beneficiary would be Ivanka Trump, who was given an unassailable venue to make her debut as a White House policymaker at the very moment major retailers were dropping her brand. Ivanka hosted, greeting the executives and government ministers and officials before the PM and president joined the meeting. She sat next to Trudeau. Her brief remarks alluded to the “unique challenges that entrepreneurs, women in the workforce, female small business owners are confronted with each and every day.” She spoke about the need to “level the playing field for this generation and for the next.”

READ MORE: Tip-toeing around the Trump in the room

Again, the message is unassailable, and dovetails perfectly with the president’s daughter’s upcoming book: Women Who Work: Rewriting the Rules for Success. The systemic barriers and biases that still face women who start businesses are well-documented. It’s one reason they’re  far less likely than men to do so. The subject is vital economically—and far beyond the fairy-tale notion of helping women “live out their financial dreams.” As this study reveals, female-run businesses are an untapped resource, with the capacity to generate $10 trillion in revenue in the U.S. alone.

At the time, there were suggestions the roundtable might be more for show than long-term performance. The members were all high-profile and accomplished in the corporate setting, no question; but simply being female doesn’t make one attuned to the complex issues involved. The fact there was no anger displayed, that the event was “interesting, collaborative and positive” suggests a disconnect from the frustration felt by many women in the workforce. The council also seemed hastily convened. In an interview with Maclean’s after the event, Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of auto parts maker Linamar Corp., said she’d been invited only days earlier. Also odd was a task force dealing with female entrepreneurship featured only two members—Verschuven, the former president of Home Depot Canada and Home Depot Asia, and Ivanka Trump—who’d founded the companies they run (or “ran,” in Trump’s case, allegedly). There was one who had to build a business from the ground up with no networks or access to capital.

Instead, Ivanka Trump, who has worked for her father since 2005, served as the proxy for a typical female entrepreneur, a bit of propaganda that diminished the challenges, risks and actual “uneven playing field” faced by women. Few are able to dine with the president of China the same day their company is given provisional approval from the Chinese government for monopoly rights to trademark their branded products in that country. Fewer still can post a photo of themselves sitting in the Oval Office, behind the U.S. president’s desk, flanked by their father and a prime minister of Canada. “A great discussion with two world leaders about the importance of women having a seat at the table!,” read the caption on Ivanka Trump’s Instagram post.

And for 35 minutes in February, more than a dozen women were given a seat at one of the world’s power tables. Will CUSCFAOWEABL, which the PMO calls “the first bilateral council of its kind,” continue the hard work that began as a photo-op? Maclean’s will cover its progress—or lack thereof. And if there is none, a much-hyped fake initiative will offer more proof, as if more was needed, that female exploitation knows no class bounds.

Updated: This post has been updated to include a response from the PMO and to note that the women’s council was referenced in the 2017 federal budget.