This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
I was recently at an event that was awarding outstanding female leaders in the business community. One award recipient was called to the stage to say a few words. I was hoping to hear a speech that highlighted her accomplishments and leadership in the corporate world, the very reason she was being recognized. However, she instead focused almost her entire speech on her family and the sacrifices she had made to be successful in her career.
I was disappointed. While having the support of that executive's family is important, drawing the audience's attention to her family sacrifices only entrenches the notion that societal focus should indeed be on her familial responsibilities, rather than her career accomplishments. This creates a self-defeating narrative that has been perpetuated too long, and, in this case, it took away an audience's ability to learn workplace lessons from an inspiring leader.
Would we expect a male leader to go up on stage and talk about the passing of his father and how that affected his career? Not a chance. When men have the opportunity to share their story, they recount their business achievements. If they mention their families, it would be to thank them for their support, in the typical way that a man's family supports him as he makes his career the priority.
My research, alongside colleague Lorraine Dyke, shows that gender differences do exist in how men and women define success. Men focus on wealth and status as markers of success while women focus on relationships. Relationships are crucial in the workplace and underpin effective corporate leadership. But the narrative of women focusing on their child-rearing and support role at the expense of corporate accomplishments does not help the stereotypical narrative from being changed.
Of course, bias, stereotyping and double standards are nothing new. Mothers rejoining the workforce after a long absence tend to get sidelined due to an implicit or benevolent form of bias, reports the Globe and Mail. One of the Big Five banks in Canada explicitly recognizes that challenge and has been working with the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University to help women transition smoothly into the workforce after maternity leave. The program teaches participants entrepreneurial skills to give them a competitive edge and help them get back on their career trajectory. The goal is to provide women with the skills their employer seeks, hence putting them at an advantage upon re-entry, as opposed to making assumptions based on implicit and explicit bias.
As the business community strives to advance women in the workplace and get more women in board seats, the self-narrative of female leaders is one key piece in influencing and creating a corporate culture that makes gender equity a priority. How female leaders at the top tell their stories will influence employees throughout the organization. White males, myself included, also need to acknowledge their privileged status in society and publicly advocate to change that narrative. To be fair, I have also been to events where female CEOs own their corporate roles and their work accomplishments. Let's give young women the role models they are looking for – loud and proud. As we enter 2017, female leaders should be conscious of their narratives and highlight and celebrate their accomplishments as corporate leaders, unapologetically.
Dr. Steven Murphy (@DrStevenMurphy) is dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.