Over the last decade, leadership programs focused on women have become more common in large Canadian organizations. While these programs may not have spawned major changes in corporate Canada’s gender diversity numbers – only 6.6 per cent of Canada’s largest publicly traded companies had a woman CEO in 2023, up just one per cent from 2020 – they have facilitated development opportunities for the thousands of women who have participated in these programs.
But what really makes a difference for women in these kinds of programs? What are the activities and sessions that women have found most useful in pursuing their career ambitions? The Globe Women’s Collective spoke with representatives from four leadership programs to find commonalities in what really moves the needle.
Visibility and allyship
Growing up in Ghana, nobody really looked to Sheila Graham for answers. “I wasn’t raised in a culture where that kind of thing happened. I was the youngest in the family. I was a girl,” she says.
Now, as a director with PwC Canada, that scenario looks vastly different.
“When you get into a workspace, you spend so much time proving yourself that after a while you become the person with the answers. It took a while for me to accept that I was the person that people would turn to and [ask], ‘What do you think?’ or ‘What decision are you making in this regard?’ Mentally, that was a shift for me,” she says.
Ms. Graham took part in the Women in Leadership (WiL) program at PwC, an intensive six-month program focussing on personal and professional development, and says one of the biggest benefits of the program was being seen by other high-achieving women.
“The first thing was visibility into a network of women who were at the front lines of whatever line of service they were in,” she says.
There was also a benefit to simply being among women, Ms. Graham adds. “It was the first time I was in a room where I looked around and every other leader in the room was female. You don’t know how much you need that until you’re in that space, right?”
WiL was born out of the realization that women were not advancing as quickly as the men in the firm, says Heather Neskas, managing director, human capital leader at PwC Canada. “We were also losing them a little bit faster. We created the women and leadership program partially as a retention tool, but also as a development tool, to make sure that we can close that gender gap,” she says. Results have been promising: Ms. Neskas says 90 per cent of WiL alumni have stayed at PwC to build their careers, and this year, 14 of the professional services network’s new partners are graduates from the program.
At Toronto-Dominion Bank, there is a concerted effort to involve senior men in the company’s efforts to work toward gender parity, says Diana Lee, global vice-president of diversity and inclusion at TD Bank. Opportunities are offered through the organization’s Women at TD initiative – an employee resource group consisting of 14,000 members.
“One of the key goals for Women at TD for the 2023 year is to focus on having colleagues understand bias and drive accountability for their actions by practicing active allyship,” says Ms. Lee, who previously co-led the initiative. “We are encouraging colleagues to sign up for the ‘50 Ways to Fight Bias’ course by Lean In, and in particular for senior male colleagues to sign up for the next cohort of the allyship course.”
TD’s diversity and inclusion strategy stresses the importance of getting everybody on board when it comes to championing women’s career advancement in the organization, notes Ms. Lee. “It’s not up to women and other members of underrepresented, or underestimated, groups to fix these barriers.”
It’s well-known that sponsorship – when someone with power in an organization actively advocates for a protégé's career advancement – can be beneficial for employees looking to advance. However, research by McKinsey & Company found that women at senior levels receive less sponsorship opportunities than men, and Asian and Black women were less likely to say senior colleagues have taken important sponsorship actions on their behalf.
“We need to battle the common tendencies to sponsor and connect with people who have the same background as yourself, and instead… recognizing that talent can come from everywhere,” says Ms. Lee.
Camille Gendreau, vice-president of human resources at Rogers Communications, points to her company’s Accelerated Development Program for Women (ADP) as an example of how sponsorship can work for female top talent. An executive leadership team identifies and nominates the female leaders participating in the program, which includes guest speakers, coaching and networking.
“Having the right leaders as program sponsors has been critical since buy-in from leaders at all levels is key for a program like this to be successful,” says Ms. Gendreau. Since the start of the program in 2018, 57 per cent of participants have been promoted or had an expansion of their roles and accountabilities.
“Participants have shared many benefits that have aided their career advancement including increased confidence in self-advocating and owning their seat at the table, as well as an increased self-awareness and the ability to speak up.”
Ms. Graham says the enthusiastic involvement of senior leaders was a key element of PwC’s WiL program. She says that commitment was particularly apparent during a “speed dating”-style event where executives introduced themselves to the junior employees.
“Usually with networking, you are trying to find a senior leader and build a rapport with them, hopefully enough where they can guide you and coach you in your career,” says Ms. Graham. “With the [WiL] program, that was flipped, they were coming to you. Many of them have been doing it since the inception of the program, you can tell that it was their passion.”
From newsletters to social networking events to intimate chat groups, companies are seeking innovative ways to build community and help women connect with their peers in a safe and non-judgemental space. Tiki Cheung, a partner at EY, is program co-leader for the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program. Ms. Cheung says the community generated by the program creates bonds that last and also informs programming.
“One of our most popular initiatives has been our WhatsApp groups,” says Ms. Cheung. “If we see common issues arising from the WhatsApp chat, we will organize speaker events or experts to come in to talk to all of [our participants].”
EY also does a “pulse check” each year to assess the level of engagement among alumni, she adds.
“Is there anyone that we haven’t touched base with in a while? Is there anyone that might be falling through the cracks? Is there someone that has been a little bit less connected? We will assign people to do follow ups because the program is only valuable when everybody participates,” says Ms. Cheung.
Ms. Neskas at PwC Canada says they have a “360 assessment tool” to inspire “self-reflection and self-awareness” among women in the WiL program.
“Participants reflect on how they think they’re doing, how they think they’re showing up as a leader,” she says. “Then, we invite those around them – clients, supervisors and people they directly report to – to complete the assessment, and that comes together to form a bit of a view so that they can reflect on their strengths.”
Women’s leadership communities can also inspire participants to pay it forward for the next generation. Having benefitted from sponsorship and professional development in her organization, Ms. Graham says she’s committed to helping young talent in the same way.
“My mentor sponsored me when I was applying for [my current] role. So I’m looking to give back to people by helping them with [that] next level of opportunity, coaching them on how to build those relationships and how to put themselves in a position to gain sponsorship,” she says. “I’m helping them understand that… relationship and networking skills are just as important as the technical skills you have.”
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