Global president and CEO of Cossette, an integrated brand experience agency
Let’s start here: The generation before mine had to fight for women’s rights. Mine is the generation with opportunities. Some might say that I have advanced to a leadership position in part because I’m a woman, and that in an era that prioritizes gender equality, I’ve been lucky to have a “short cut.” To a point, this is true. But if equity initiatives helped mitigate 100 years of discrimination, I’m okay with that.
But I’ve started to question where we are now. As a matter of course, we take women aspiring to leadership roles and set them up to be trained, groomed, sponsored and mentored. I wonder if we’re reinforcing the idea that women aren’t as valuable as men, that we are lacking somehow and need to be fixed.
There have been many advancements in the workplace, yet it continues to value very specific types of behaviour. By default, they are behaviours most often attributed to men because for so long work was only populated by men. But these behaviours don’t fit everyone.
The answer has been, on many occasions, to demand that women aspire to a stereotyped idea of leadership: ambitious, confident, assertive, risk-taking, calculating and fervently committed. If these qualities don’t come naturally, then read a book, take a course, get a mentor, a sponsor, a model, a boot camp. Train.
It begs the question: Why are we asking the people with less power to do all of the work? Why is it the women’s responsibility?
Why isn’t it a workplace problem?
Perhaps it is the C-suite who need mentoring. Because we are the people who are empowered. We won’t change human nature or genders, but we can change a company’s priorities, practices and ways of doing things. What’s valued in a company can evolve.
For example, who says that to be overly confident is a sign of good leadership? Or that women need to be more ambitious? Do we need to apply for a job before we have the right experience because we’re told that men would? I would argue that it’s not a bad thing to wait to have the experience before applying for any new position. And instead of propagating a cliché about confidence, leaders could inspire a culture that understands that being careful and deliberate can help make the right decision, or that waiting before making too quick of a decision can lead to other, more valuable options.
For our collective thinking to change, we need to share the responsibility. I think that in some ways, a blueprint for leadership has been welcome. But the way forward is our own. Do your best. Listen to your instincts. You went to school and learned. You’ve seen your parents and other inspiring people work in the world and you can model what feels right. Go to events, be yourself, pay attention, jump at any opportunity to learn.
It’s important to say: This is not prescriptive for women. It is for everyone. There are as many ways to be a leader in business as there are leaders in business.
And, for those in the executive, I would challenge that the next time you’re approving the budget for a mentoring program or sending potential leaders to training intended to help them “build a strategic network of key stakeholders that will support their career,” or “take charge of a challenging situation with power and confidence,” first ask the question, “What are we trying to fix?”
Then consider how to humanize the culture, make the workplace less threatening and more open. Remove bravado from the skill set required of job applicants and pull candidates of any gender forward based on competency and experience; promote people with the courage to be vulnerable, who set boundaries, who learn from mistakes. Have senior executives use flexible work hours to accommodate their own family schedules, giving implicit permission for others who want to do exactly that.
Because it’s not a fix that we need. What we need is a safe place to evolve. Stop telling women they need to be different or learn different things and start building an organization where they are themselves. That’s what diversity means, isn’t it? Recognizing the inherent value of individuals – just as they are.
Only then are we going to have the richness of insight, approach and opinion that drives the best gender equity initiatives in the first place.
This article is one in a series being published during the week of International Women’s Day. To find more, go to tgam.ca/careers.
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