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Lisa Kimmel is president and CEO of Edelman Canada. She is also the global chair of Edelman Public Relations' Global Women's Executive Network.

Last year, the curtain of silence hanging over the experience many women have at work was finally lifted. The #MeToo effort exposed the inappropriate behaviour of high-profile men who have harassed, intimidated and sexually assaulted women – without consequence – for far too long. As we enter 2018, it's clear the momentum toward change isn't slowing down.

As a female leader and advocate, I, too, believe that #TimesUp, and that greater equality is necessary.

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But there's something I'm worried about. For all the positives gained, we're also facing a risk of increased polarization along gender lines that ultimately hinders, rather than helps, women's path forward in the workplace.

It's something we should talk about.

Over the past few weeks, I've heard from several senior male leaders who have always been strong advocates of women, who now say they're nervous about interacting with female subordinates for fear of false accusations. That they're no longer sure about providing one-on-one mentorship, or having that business dinner, or otherwise being alone with a woman.

The fact is that due process has seriously failed on the issue of sexual assault, and so this moment of change is happening largely outside of it.

But in a world of trial by social media, to be accused is to be convicted, and some men want to reduce their risk profile to zero.

When I first heard these worries, I had a visceral reaction: ridiculous. It's akin to hearing about arson and being afraid to light a candle. If a man isn't using sexual advances to intimidate, humiliate or leverage power over others at work, there's no issue.

And yet, I also feel strongly that we can't ignore the fact that some male leaders feel this way. It's time to engage in a serious conversation about how men and women move forward and work together.

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The work ahead is daunting. Awareness around sexual harassment in the workplace is a significant issue. The Globe and Mail recently reported that 94 per cent of Canadian leaders believe sexual harassment isn't a problem in their business. Of the respondents, 95 per cent were male.

The delusion is real. Multiple studies have shown that sexual harassment in the workplace is very much a reality, with one study pegging the number at 56 per cent of Canadians who said women are sexually harassed in their workplace. If business leaders, particularly male business leaders, turn a blind eye to the issue – or perhaps simply don't understand what constitutes sexual harassment – that's a huge problem.

While some of these views are shocking, we can't simply be dismissive and critical of this perspective, as these beliefs could result in a giant step backward for women. If male leaders retreat from providing mentorship and sponsorship, the critical advancement of women in the workplace will stall.

That failure would set all of us back.

Consider this: Women are grossly underrepresented in senior positions across virtually every institution. The 2016 Canadian Board Diversity Annual Report Card revealed that women today hold 21.6 per cent of FP500 organization board seats – up from only 19.5 per cent in 2015.

Women's advancement into senior levels of business is moving at a glacial pace, even though studies show that more diverse leadership makes for better client relationships, employee retention and better business results.

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As the chief executive of a large Canadian company and chair of our Global Women's Executive Network, I'm making it a priority to lead by example. I'm going to encourage a continuing open and fearless dialogue and create a safe space to discuss issues and share concerns. We must bring men and women together – as opposed to further apart – to address this important topic.

Women must continue to stand by each other. #MeToo revealed the exponential value of female-to-female support and the impact it can make in driving awareness and hopefully change.

Similarly, male leaders must take a stand on this issue. Men need to embrace the opportunity to showcase their support and mentorship to the talented, ambitious women who are seeking career advice.

I believe we are witnessing the ascent of women and the decline of male hegemony in the workplace. Sex is about power, and power has traditionally been wielded by men.

That era is clearly ending.

The next one will be defined by a new set of rules. The desired outcome should be a workplace where women and men feel safe and empowered to bring out the best in each other.

The solution is not as simple. We need to learn how to negotiate the norms and nuances of real gender equality. It will be a complicated journey and acknowledgement is just the first step.

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