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Young women may feel they don’t have the experience or status to take on a position as a board member, but they can contribute valuable skills and perspectives.alvarez

Joanne Zhou had always wanted to serve on a board of directors. But despite years of volunteer involvement with community organizations, the Toronto-based health coach and registered dietician didn’t think she had the experience to land a role.

Ms. Zhou, 28, recalls envisioning the role of a director as something only “leaders in society” could take on.

“I wasn’t sure, as a young woman, how I would actually be able to contribute,” she says.

That changed when Ms. Zhou joined the 2020 cohort of Girls on Boards, an initiative facilitated by non-profit organization Fora: Network for Change.

Each year, Girls on Boards selects thirty diverse emerging leaders aged 18 to 25 who take on roles as full voting directors on boards of various non-profit organizations across Canada. Boards that have taken on a Young Director through the program include Habitat for Humanity Canada, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and Fora itself.

“We saw that there was a gap – a lack of young women and diverse leaders from under-represented communities in decision-making spaces,” says Atifa Hasham, senior programs officer at Fora.

Last year, Statistics Canada released data on the representation of women on government and corporate boards which highlighted an ongoing discrepancy. In 2018, women represented just 18 per cent of all directors on boards. Moreover, almost two-thirds of corporate boards were entirely composed of male directors.

Ms. Hasham says Fora identified the non-profit sector as a “pipeline” to train young women as board directors.

“There is little to no representation of youth from diverse communities on non-profit boards,” adds Ms. Hasham. “This is an important note, because a large majority of non-profits in Canada serve youth, with at least half of them focusing on underserved communities.”

Overcoming imposter syndrome

Sara Siddiqi, 26, is a dual-degree JD/MBA student at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School and the Schulich School of Business with a professional background in the technology sector. A member of the 2021 Girls on Boards cohort, she serves on the board of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF).

Ms. Siddiqi says common concerns shared amongst Young Directors at the beginning of the Girls on Boards program include “fears that we may not be ready, or we might not be a value-add when we get there. I know so many capable women who count themselves out because they don’t see themselves represented in these spaces.”

Madhuri Parikh has been a Girls on Boards coach for three years, bringing experience as a charter director and from consulting on myriad boards. She says questions regarding age and experience are common barriers for under-represented youth.

As a coach, Ms. Parikh endeavours to create a space where Young Directors can overcome “imposter syndrome” and grow comfortable on boards, ensuring that they see themselves as rightfully belonging in those roles.

“It may be harder to find a woman, or a young person, or an Indigenous person, or a person of colour who has C-suite experience. But that’s not because they’re not capable,” Ms. Parikh says.

“We have to expand our thinking to look at lived experience and other experiences, and maybe sometimes we need to be taking a little bit of a chance.”

Valuable perspectives

Fora’s Atifa Hasham says that Young Directors have made their mark in a variety of ways, from community outreach to strategic development to program creation. She notes that with the majority of the organization’s placements, their terms are extended by one to three years.

Beyond the personal development that board participation provides for the young women in the program, Ms. Hasham points out that organizations have much to gain as well.

“I think we forget that youth do have their own expertise,” she says. “Boards have consistently reported that Young Directors’ participation and perspective have added value, that boards are more inclusive as a result of participating in this program, and that they’ve been able to meet and strengthen their own targets.”

Ms. Zhou serves on the board of Pulsar Collective, an organization pushing to improve gender equality in STEM. Following the conclusion of her 2020 Girls on Boards term, she remained on the organization’s board, and calls the transition to ongoing director “seamless.”

“I think the program really gave me the confidence to even pursue being on a board,” she says. “Previously I just thought that it was something that was out of my reach.”

For her part, Ms. Siddiqi has taken on an active role on audit and nominations committees with LEAF’s Board of Directors. Ms. Siddiqi says her time with Girls on Boards made her more aware of how crucial voices like hers can be.

“It’s very important for young women and marginalized people to be on boards and in decision-making spaces, because they can point out problems and create solutions to the issues their communities are facing,” she says. “Those are the conversations that are taking place in these rooms.”

Ask Women and Work

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Question: I was recently approached by a couple of junior employees at my place of work who asked if I would mentor them. My employer doesn’t have a formal mentorship program, but I agreed to take this on. I’m happy to share my knowledge and help them in any way I can. However, I want to ensure I’m providing value for my mentees and I’m not entirely sure what to talk about. We will be meeting a couple times a month – do you have advice on what I should be covering in these sessions?

We asked Heather Thomson, co-chair of the Alberta chapter of the Women in Leadership Foundation and owner of Bold and Brave Coaching to field this one. Heather is the co-author of a book about leadership, Mind the Gap: Navigating Your Leadership Journey:

When you embark on a mentor/mentee relationship, it is important to set clear expectations so roles are clearly defined. Once you understand what your mentee is hoping to accomplish by having a mentor, it helps you to support the mentee better by focusing on these specific goals in your meetings. The mentee could be seeking guidance for career advancement or to support their current position. Being clear about the mentee’s ‘Why?’ and what they are hoping to achieve through this relationship is critical.

The mentee should be responsible for setting the meetings and providing a topic of discussion in advance of each meeting. Provide time at the beginning of each mentorship session to check in with each other and see how the week went, to provide an update on what was actionable from the last meeting and to discuss the topic the mentee has brought forward. At the end of each meeting, have an actionable item or goal that the mentee can work on between meetings.

Some topics to discuss with your mentee could centre around career development and skills assessment, situational advice and work/life balance. Meetings should centre around what the mentee wants to discuss; however, don’t be afraid to share personal stories with the mentee that relate to what they are experiencing. Being open and vulnerable with your mentee can be a very powerful experience for both of you. Also, be flexible in meetings if something has come up for the mentee that they want to talk through instead of the topic they had originally planned to discuss.

In the end, the value that you provide your mentee comes with helping them set clear professional and personal goals that allow them to grow and stretch themselves. Commit to being present in the meetings and block off time so that you can give them your undivided attention. The mentor/mentee relationship will also give you the opportunity to self-reflect on your current practices, helping you to grow as well.

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