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Tamara Tatham, Mallorie Brodie, Donna May Kimmaliardjuk, Eugenia Duodu and Denise Pickett

Recognizing inherent biases first step in correcting poor representation of women in male-dominated fields

It’s hard to become something you can only imagine. That’s why visible representation of women of all ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations is so important across all fields, says Tanya van Biesen, executive director of Catalyst in Canada.

“We need to see women of all kinds being leaders, individual contributors and role models in order to help reframe what leadership looks like today,” van Biesen says. “Inclusion is a choice, and you have to make that choice every day.”

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Catalyst is a global non-profit which collaborates with leading companies around the world to build inclusive workplaces for women.

The modern workforce has come a long way since it was founded in 1962, but despite making great strides in traditionally male-dominated fields, much work still remains to be done.

Van Biesen refers to an exercise described in a New York Times article that is used by organizational psychologists all over the world. It shows that when asked to draw a leader, most people produce the image of a man.

This could be attributed to unconscious bias, which is why, says van Biesen, “any chance to showcase women living their professional dreams and contributing in massive ways to the Canadian economy is so valuable.”

“This is especially true when you layer intersectionality into the equation,” she adds. “For women of colour, this could mean they face a double or triple barrier.”

When scientist Eugenia Duodu rose at conferences to present a paper, the surprise on people’s faces was unmistakable, she says. Duodu, one of five outstanding female Canadian leaders profiled in a recent series sponsored by American Express Canada, called Breaking Barriers, is acutely aware of the lack of not just women, but also of black researchers, in her field.

“I was the only one that I knew of,” says Duodu, who holds a PhD in chemistry from the University of Toronto and is the chief executive officer of Visions of Science, a community-based network in Toronto that encourages children and youth in low-income neighbourhoods to study STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

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“Feeling like you’re an imposter and almost being looked at as if you are an imposter [is] the battle. It hasn’t been insurmountable for me, but it’s definitely been something that I needed to navigate.”

Over time, Duodu has learned to overcome these insecurities. “I’m more comfortable with who I am, what I’ve gone through,” she says. “I know that I’m the real deal.”

Battling imposter syndrome, being true to oneself and having the courage to articulate ambitions were common themes amongst the women profiled in Breaking Barriers.

So too was the vast underrepresentation of women in certain fields.

Two-time Olympic basketball player Tamara Tatham, who was the first woman coach on the Raptors 905, and Mallorie Brodie, CEO and co-founder of Kitchener, Ont.-based construction-software company Bridgit, can both attest to this gender inbalance.

For Dr. Donna May Kimmaliardjuk, the male-dominated field of cardiac surgery initially shook her self-confidence, despite finding a supportive and welcoming environment in medicine.

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Dr. Kimmaliardjuk is not only the first Inuk heart surgeon in Canada, but also among only a handful of female cardiac surgeons who have ever done a residency at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

“To be seen as a leader in command of the operating room and of patient treatment after surgery, I felt I needed to act and speak in a certain way that just wasn’t my personality,” she says.

“I’m chatty and bubbly, I cry and laugh with my patients and can be very sensitive that way. I found myself trying to be more like my male colleagues, which didn’t feel right internally because that meant I wasn’t being myself.”

Today, Dr. Kimmaliardjuk has learned that she can let her true self shine through and still be successful at what she does.

“If a young woman out there wants to be a surgeon, then she can be a surgeon and she doesn’t have to be a certain way to be good at it,” she says.

Regardless of outcomes, it’s important for women to never lose their drive along the way, says Denise Pickett, the New York-based chief risk officer for American Express.

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“I’ve started to realize the importance of articulating your ambition as a woman,” she says. “To be ambitious about being your best self and advocating for other people, particularly other women, if you have the opportunity.”

Catalyst published a research report in July called Empowering Workplaces Combat Emotional Tax for People of Colour in Canada. The study found that women of colour experience an emotional tax, defined as feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity, being on guard to experiences of bias, and associated effects on health, well-being and ability to thrive at work.

The best way Canadian employers can counter this tax? By creating empowering work environments for their employees.

Women are still up against some inherent biases, van Biesen says. “These can be formed because of where you were born, how you were raised, the media you consume – all these things add up – and though we often don’t know we carry them, these biases inform our decision-making.

“More and more women are entering and excelling in what have historically been male-dominated workplaces. As women rise in these organizations and industries, they become incredibly powerful role models for the generations of women coming up behind them, helping to overcome one of the most pernicious issues in the fight for gender equality: you can’t be it if you can’t see it.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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