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LEADERSHIP LAB

The challenge for women to smash the glass ceiling Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Let us persist, in spite of slow progress.

It will take 151 years before the proportion of women in middle management is equal to men if it continues to rise as the same rate it did between 1987 and 2010 (approximately 4 per cent).

Though women comprise 48 per cent of Canada’s labour force, only 0.32 per cent of them hold senior management roles.

Of Canada’s top 500 companies, just 25 are led by female CEOs, and over the last 15 years, the percentage of Canadian women in senior corporate positions has improved marginally, from 14 per cent to 18 per cent.

Shockingly, Canadian women still take home 73 cents for every dollar that men earn, even as their educational attainment has surpassed that of their male counterparts; for example, women with MBAs earn $8,167 a year less than men with the same degree in their first job out of school.

Paradoxically, more research emerges every day about why having women in management is good for business – a recent study by Peterson Institute for International Economics revealed that having women in the highest corporate offices is strongly correlated with increased profitability based on a review of 22,000 public companies in 91 countries.

Leadership, regardless of gender, is a calling and a responsibility. As one in the minority of women who have broken through the glass ceiling in corporate Canada, I have experienced some recurring challenges throughout my career. Here is how I dealt with them:

Overt and covert prejudice

Attitudes about who can be successful and how, are deeply rooted. Being an immigrant woman, I was an unlikely candidate to reach the highest level of executive suite. I saw incredulousness, minimization and dismissal, as if I had achieved success through some weird stroke of luck, or worse. You will need to develop the internal fortitude to control your response and feelings in face of attitudes that can hurt deeply.

Unexamined judgment

Much has been said about this by successful women and it’s true – male and female executives are judged through different lenses. Women are “hard” while men are simply “tough”, a subtle but important difference in connotation, and so on. Be prepared to counter these stereotypical expectations of female and male behaviour by exposing them to the light. I had many interesting conversations around this, and don’t regret a single one.

An odd woman out

The higher I climbed, the fewer women I encountered. I felt like an imposter and an outsider most of the time but I turned that into a source of strength. I learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Understand that your “different-ness” adds a significant advantage to the group.

Jump, even when you feel you shouldn’t, and especially then

One of the biggest reasons I am successful is my ability and courage to “jump”, or get in over my head and survive and thrive. Men are better at embracing opportunity, even when not ready. Women’s internal voices say, not yet, I need more experience or more training. Kill that voice. Take risks, go for that job, ask for more money, and don’t settle on a contract without pushing back and negotiating.

Often, our upbringing as women puts us at a disadvantage. We are taught from an early age to be nice, to please, to yield. Pursuing executive roles successfully is much about re-wiring our internal responses from limiting beliefs, like “I don’t deserve this” or “I can’t do it” to “You are lucky to have me.”

If you cannot control the negative voice in your head, at least learn to ignore it. Gain confidence by developing your unique value proposition. Don’t be afraid to break the mould and be yourself.

What you bring with you is more valued than ever because business success in today’s globalized and complex world is more than ever before tied not just to diversity in gender, race and culture, but to life experience, frame of references, world-views, thinking and learning styles. Authenticity and strong voices are in, complacency and blandness are out.

Know that setbacks are temporary. Always see the bigger picture and believe something even better is coming. Life isn’t fair; I don’t allow setbacks to affect me for too long. Failure contains a valuable message for us: true leaders know what they don’t know. Use it as an opportunity to seek feedback (and continue to seek it often), develop self-awareness, invest in yourself by working on your weaknesses pro-actively.

But my key piece of advice? Practice doing what you find uncomfortable. That always translates into tremendous growth and self-knowledge. Do something uncomfortable every day – something that does not come easy. This develops tolerance for adversity – if we can handle it within, we can face it without.

Every deep social and culture change (for example, equal pay for equal work) requires the labour, voices and sacrifice of many.

When I understood my challenges in that context, I began to see it as doing my part to help forge an easier path for others. Women on the way up must have a thick skin to be pitted against deeply-entrenched social mental models, still. Accept this as a price for the “cause” for all women. If we also commit to supporting and promoting each other, we can slowly build a critical mass to correct these outdated archetypes. It is a battle we must fight, for ourselves and for the women coming up behind us. Understand that it won’t always be fair but keep going, anyway. We are all worth it.

Marina Glogovac is president and CEO of CanadaHelps, Toronto

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