If you blinked last week you might have missed it, but a trifecta of unrelated events took place reflecting a cultural shift in the perception of women in leadership roles. Each event – important in its own right – occurred in isolation but when viewed in unison, wield a significant impact.
First, the U.S. military lifted its ban on women serving in combat roles, which means they may apply to fight on the front lines and in elite commando units in one of the world’s largest armies. The United States now joins a number of countries allowing women to serve in combat roles. Canada has done so since 1989. Observers may debate whether women possess the same physical prowess as men but, in the end, this change by a global military superpower should have a positive impact on the perception of women’s abilities.
Second, Kathleen Wynne won the Ontario Liberal leadership, making her the first woman to serve as premier Canada’s most populous province. Canada now boasts six female premiers, representing a majority of citizens Although two of them have yet to be tested in a general election, it shows a maturing level of acceptability for female leaders in politics. (And it’s not just in Canada. Hillary Clinton’s popularity continues and speculation that the outgoing U.S. Secretary of State will make a run for the White House in 2016 remains rampant.)
Third, a Statistics Canada report showed that the number of women in the top 1 per cent of earners almost doubled in the past 20 years. This means more than 53,000 women in Canada generate an annual income of more than $201,400.
These three events demonstrate that physically, politically and financially the perception of women as leaders is becoming the new normal. This is not new to many commentators.
Two distinct camps have emerged on the topic of women and leadership. While one side argued that decades would pass before we see equality in the business world, the other side asserted that women are now the new men. The truth lies somewhere in between but there is no doubt that a change in cultural mindset is taking place.
Skeptics, argued Monica Dodi, a Los Angeles-based managing director and co-founder of the Women’s Venture Capital Fund, only need to look back 40 years, when the United States mandated federal financing for sports programs for both genders. Back then, she recalled, few would have predicted that women’s sports would as acceptable as they are today.
“I believe that women in combat will be as acceptable and commonplace as women in sports,” Ms. Dodi said. “To me, it’s normal that we should be able to defend ourselves and our country … Just as it’s normal that we should be able to play sports.”
Not everyone views this confluence of current events as a sign of a greater trend. Soosan D. Latham, assistant professor at York University’s School of Human Resource Management in Toronto, agrees that society has become more accepting of women in leadership roles. But she thinks we’re far from a watershed moment.
“Our institutions, from government to organizations in private business, are fundamentally male-oriented [and] dominated. The few women – and there are few even as we boast six premiers – who succeed do so primarily by continuing to play the male value game,” Dr. Latham said.
“A cultural shift will happen when we have a critical mass of women in leadership positions as role models,” she added.
Others are cautiously optimistic. “There is no doubt … that women, whether in Canada or globally, are becoming a powerful national and international cohort,” said Penny Collenette, adjunct professor in the Faculty of Common Law at the University of Ottawa and former director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office.
She noted that both Ms. Wynne and B.C Premier Christy Clarke still need to go through general elections, because they inherited their premier’s mantle, as Kim Campbell did when she became prime minister in 1993. Twenty years later, we still have not seen a female prime minister elected by the country at large.
Ms. Collenette acknowledges, however, that progress is being made and that the acceptance of women in leadership positions is being integrated into business.
In the broader landscape, this cultural shift will continue and the perception of female leaders will evolve. That is, if we can figure out how to maintain the momentum.