This article is part of a package produced by the Globe Women’s Collective aligned to International Women’s Day and this year’s theme of #BreakTheBias.
Back in 2018, Vera Tsui was living in Montreal as a single mom, caring for her five-year-old son and pregnant with twins. A newcomer to Canada from China, she felt lost. French didn’t come easy, and she struggled to make sense of Western culture.
So when a friend pointed her to a business coaching course offered through WeWorkingWomen, a Chinese women’s leadership platform, she was intrigued. The organizations’ blogs and video interviews were inspiring. Here were Chinese women running their own businesses and climbing corporate ladders. Ms. Tsui wanted in.
There was only one problem: The in-person course, offered over eight weekends, was located in Toronto, WeWorkingWomen’s home base. She signed up anyway, and spent the next couple of months driving, flying and grabbing busses and trains back and forth. While the program gave her new skills, one person in the room motivated her to come back each week: Sherry Zhang, WeWorkingWomen’s CEO and co-founder, who sat in the back taking notes.
“I was really impressed. I thought, ‘The [co-founder] of such an amazing platform still keeps learning and improving herself. This is a team I want to belong to,’” Ms. Tsui says.
After launching a Montreal division of the organization, she eventually joined Ms. Zhang in Toronto permanently as chief marketing officer and partner. The two have since co-founded a new technology company, Shelebration Tech Inc., which is developing a mobile app aimed at building bridges between women.
Meanwhile, WeWorkingWomen has evolved to offer digital networking events, workshops, philanthropy opportunities, a speaker series and an award that celebrates achievement within the Canadian Chinese community. Before the pandemic hit, 400 women attended an upscale awards gala in Toronto.
Ms. Zhang says she decided to start WeWorkingWomen as a blog in 2015 after living in Canada for 16 years, working in the corporate world and as an entrepreneur.
“Whether I succeeded, failed or faced challenges, I always had a deep feeling of loneliness in my heart,” she recalls about that time. “It was [about] not having my own circle, a network and a space where I truly felt I belonged.”
She discovered she was hardly alone. Today, the platform reaches more than 100,000 professional women in Canada, the U.S., China, Europe, Australia and many other Asian countries.
The ability to discuss similar professional and personal challenges has been a godsend for many. Ms. Zhang says that in China, women are often expected to be humble, quiet and work hard – attributes that don’t necessarily translate well to more aggressive Western business environments. As a result, many of the women are overlooked in the workplace or as business leaders despite having the skills and drive, she says.
Then there’s the other challenge that seems to resonate deeply within the community: work-life balance.
“As a Chinese culture, we always keep everything inside. We can take care of it. We can take care of it,” says Ms. Zhang.
But that comes at a cost to mental health. Unlike in China where extended family is available to care for children during the workday, women in Canada and other parts of the world are expected to balance their business and baby without that extra help. Ms. Zhang says many members commiserate about their exhaustion – and try to find solutions together.
There’s a more relaxed side too. Last Lunar New Year, the platform hosted a 16-hour non-stop global livestream so women in different time zones could jump on and talk about local traditions. Ten thousand women showed up to watch or take part.
According to Ms. Zhang, although the community is vast and global, friendships blossom and that support paves the way for personal and professional success.
“We need to take care of ourselves,” she says. “When we are happy, people around us are going to be happy.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Sherry Zhang as founder of WeWorkingWomen, when she is in fact co-founder, alongside Hua Yu. We have updated the article to reflect this.
Ask Women and Work
Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.
Question: I am a small business owner and I’m having serious problems with staffing. I normally have eight employees and four of them have quit over the past six months. I feel like all I do is look for new people to hire. I suspect there is a culture problem or some other issue in our workplace that is compelling people to quit, but no one has come to me with a reason. What’s the best way to approach my remaining employees to find out what’s driving people out, without raising a red flag with them? I don’t want to lose anyone else.
We asked Kayla Isabelle, CEO of Startup Canada, to field this one:
This is a great question, and a challenge many startups and small businesses face. With demanding workloads and evolving roles and responsibilities, employee retention can take a major hit. Add in virtual work spaces with fewer human touch points and the “Great Resignation” and you have a daunting leadership challenge on your hands. I’ve been there myself.
The biggest challenge I think you need to address is how you are creating psychological safety to really get to the core of this issue. The red flag has already been raised if half of your team has left within the last six months – it’s time to open your door, listen and deconstruct the environment being developed at the organization. Assume nothing. Be open to everything.
Potential prompts could include:
- Do your employees often come to you with challenges, or do issues often get brushed under the rug? If not, why? Self-awareness in this process is critical – leave blame out of the conversation and focus on finding a productive way forward.
- Do you show vulnerability as the leader in understanding potential pain points in the business? How do you accept feedback (both in your physical response and in your words)? Kim Scott has a great saying: “The way you ask for criticism and react when you get it goes a long way toward building trust – or destroying it.”
- How do you illustrate you care about your employees, and not just their productivity? What’s a concrete example?
One of the issues you might also be facing is lack of structure. If your team feels like they don’t understand their role in the organization and how they’re making an impact, why would they stay?
- Ask yourself: Does your team have a good understanding of what success looks like to you, and to the organization as a whole?
- Do you have clear performance expectations and indicators so everyone knows what they’re working toward?
Other tools that might be helpful:
- When consulting your team, how are you preparing them for these conversations? Have you set the tone for a safe space where their feedback (good, bad and ugly) is not only asked for, but encouraged? Consider the framing of these consultations just as important as the conversation itself – if employees feel on the spot or uncomfortable, you won’t be any closer to identifying the root issues.
- Ask your team how THEY would like to provide feedback on an ongoing basis. This could be an anonymous survey or a phone call instead of a virtual face to face so the environment feels less personal, or bringing in a trusted external resource who can speak to your team directly. I’ve had employees request “walk and talks” because they feel they can better work through problems outside of the office!
- Exit interviews – have you considered connecting with the employees who have left the organization to get their feedback? This can also be done by an external third party.
- To celebrate wins, what mechanisms do you have in place to cheer on your team? A “Kudos” Slack channel or spotlights during team meetings can go a long way to make your team’s contributions feel valued.
Most importantly, this review cannot be a moment in time. By entering into this space, you’re making a commitment to continuous improvement. Challenge yourself to sit in the uncomfortable moments, knowing that it’s your role as the leader of this organization to shoulder feedback from your team.
Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.