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Chief data officer Rupinder Dhillon took the One-Year Executive Program at Rotman School of Management: “My career has been on a skyward trajectory ever since,” she says.Eugene Grichko

There’s a strong business case for inclusion and diversity: Recent McKinsey & Company research suggests there is an increasing connection between women in leadership roles and business outperformance. Yet championing gender difference is something many organizations still grapple with when building diversity within senior management ranks. According to a recent Grant Thornton report, “Women in Business 2020,” the proportion of women in high-level positions has stalled at 29 per cent, the same percentage listed the year before. In Canada, for every four men who are promoted to manager, only three women receive the same promotion, the McKinsey data reveals.

“A really great step would be to shine a light on the systemic biases that exist in organizations,” says Rocca Morra Hodge, executive coach for career advancement and leadership at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “It’s about how we recruit. How we value one name over another. It’s about addressing bias happening in the background.”

At least part of today’s challenge, she explains, is around confronting corporate cultures that still prize traditionally masculine leadership styles – direct command and control, for example – over others that centre around more democratic collaboration and communication. Rather than focusing solely on winning, status and individualism, there should also be room for various leadership styles in different situations.

“This is about diversity of thinking and garnering everybody’s talents,” she says. “So many people say, ‘I have so much more to give in an organization.’ It’s just not being tapped to its full potential.”

Fortunately, EMBA programs like the three at Rotman not only lift the veil on entrenched corporate management gender biases, but help women find their own leadership styles, lock in their brands and elevate their careers.

Rupinder Dhillon, chief data officer, Hudson’s Bay Company

It was the Rotman School’s personalized leadership coaching that made all the difference for Rupinder Dhillon when she graduated from the One-Year Executive MBA program in 2018. After floating around for 11 years in IT middle management and taking consulting work, Dhillon says she felt unsure she had what it took to be at the same table as other senior leaders.

But after doing what she calls “gut check time,” she applied in 2017 while on maternity leave with her second child. Her husband, Robin Bains, had already earned a Rotman MBA in 2015 and Dhillon saw the difference it made to his ability to work methodically towards goals and have the discipline needed to step back and think through ideas. She believed that a similar business foundation would help her too.

“My career has been on a skyward trajectory ever since,” says Dhillon, who is now chief data officer for Hudson’s Bay Company in Toronto and an advisory board member for Rotman’s Master of Management Analytics program. “You learn business fundamentals, accounting and some finance, but a big focus is on understanding your own leadership style and not trying to be someone that you’re not. You’ve got to live your own leadership.”

Dhillon quickly realized her own concerns about her executive management fitness were unfounded. As she earned respect within the program, her confidence was bolstered. Now she is in a position to champion others.

Four out of five leaders on her technical team are women, and while she admits she wasn’t seeking to hire female employees specifically, she knows a good fit when she sees one: someone who can pivot in a fast-moving retail industry that depends on data analytics.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of her career these days is helping to usher in the next wave of leaders by building great teams of diverse employees, she says.

“If you can give people opportunities, visibility and also move obstacles out of their way, you’ll see them grow in their own right,” she says. “That part is the most rewarding.”

Johanna Hoyt, associate, McKinsey & Company

Johanna Hoyt started the Global Executive MBA program at Rotman in 2018 after working 10 years in Canada’s design and construction industry. She started her career wearing a hard hat and safety boots on site as a construction coordinator, and eventually climbed the ranks by taking on senior roles for bigger, more complex projects. Some of these civil projects, such as urban LRT extensions, were worth $300-million to $5-billion.

“While I was comfortable with my technical knowledge in construction and project management, I wanted to learn more about the business side of the industry,” she says. The 18-month GEMBA program, which integrates academics and leadership development with world travel, took her to Shanghai, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Milan and San Francisco. “It made the world seem both small and diverse at the same time,” she says.

After working 10 years in the construction industry, Johanna Hoyt successfully transitioned careers to a global consulting firm after getting an MBA at Rotman School of Management.Eugene Grichko

The program (since relaunched as the dual-degree Rotman-SDA Bocconi Global EMBA) saw her, one memorable day, celebrating an Indian holiday with locals during a lunch break. It seemed like a world away from the male-dominated Canadian construction industry that employed 182,000 women – compared to 1.46 million men – in 2019, according to Statistics Canada. The industry still experiences large gaps in women in management positions in all areas of the sector.

It was at a leadership development retreat, part of the Rotman MBA, that she began to seriously question next career steps and consider life beyond construction. After meeting an old friend, who was working for McKinsey, she decided to take a leap of faith and change careers. She recently became an associate for the global management-consulting firm, which has achieved near-parity in its global hiring, with women as 49.2 per cent of all new hires. Today she helps clients with capital portfolio optimization and project development. No hard hat required.

Attracting more women and girls to STEM fields and helping them thrive is a complex issue that won’t be solved quickly, says Hoyt, who has worked with previous employers to develop and implement programs to recruit a diverse workforce. Addressing the systemic problems that keep women away from construction is only the first step.

“Programs that target the mentorship and development of under-represented groups and help address the immediate issue will have the trickledown effect of encouraging a higher participation of those groups into the feeder programs and schools,” she predicts.

Promoting women to senior management roles is more important than ever during the current pandemic, she adds. McKinsey research has shown that the biggest obstacle women face on the way to senior positions in all industries is the so-called “broken-rung” effect, which means that for every 100 men promoted and hired to manager roles, only 72 women are chosen for similar positions.

A recent McKinsey Global Institute study estimates that female job loss rates due to COVID-19 are about 1.8 times higher than male job loss rates globally.

“The workforce disruption caused by COVID-19 could cause gender inequality to deepen,” she cautions.

Reviewing practices

Although the corporate world has a lot of work to do to help improve practices around gender and leadership, Morra Hodge says there are some good things happening, such as the growing recognition that allies serve an essential purpose.

“People are partnering and collaborating and saying, ‘you know what, in this meeting I want you to give feedback on how I present, or why didn’t people hear me,’” she says. “I love the whole idea of allies and getting people to step in and help someone gain that confidence and show that they can perform at different levels.”

Implementing pay practices that elevate women to a level playing field, as well as reviewing succession planning that uses the same criteria to assess all employees, are also areas that need attention, she says.

Too often, the old adage “it’s lonely at the top,” is true for both men and women, says Morra Hodge – which is why coaching programs can be beneficial.

“Senior leaders don’t have a lot of people to talk to,” she says. “Coaching can be very effective to help to build confidence and be able to recover from setbacks and have a plan to get back on track.”

Rotman’s EMBA programs not only focus on bringing gender diversity into the classroom and empower women with a much more sophisticated business acumen, they also develop in students refined leadership skills and a strong new network of trusted colleagues and friends.

“Many of our students are women who are already thriving,” says Morra Hodge, “and ready to break the glass ceiling.”


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