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Organizations need to redefine differing gender-based expectations

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.

This week's series of Leadership Labs is being published in conjunction with International Women's Day.

There are certain unwritten rules about perfection and performance that apply to women exclusively, rooted in society's long-held beliefs about what it means to be female.

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Not only are they harmful for women, they are harmful to society as a whole.

Business leaders, both male and female, have a responsibility to stand with women by changing those expectations – ultimately changing the story for everyone.

International Women's Day presents a perfect moment in time to review perspectives on gender roles and what we each might be doing – even subconsciously – to perpetuate harmful gender norms that hold women back. Consider what you can do to change the story. If women have the opportunity to fully participate and thrive in the global workforce, and men are able to identify and change how these entrenched norms affect them, then we will all succeed.

The first step is to simply acknowledge that these deep-seated gender norms heavily influence how we work together, thanks in part to cultural expectations about the roles and responsibilities that men and women should have.

Girls and women have long been socialized to believe that they should attain a kind of feminine perfection, a social pressure that continues to perpetuate a harmful cycle of gender inequality. We see the "perfect" woman in movies and magazines – looking fabulous while she balances a great job with a happy family, busy social life and a perfectly decorated (and always spotless) home.

No one can live up to that. The problem is we still feel we have to try.

Although acutely aware through my work at Plan International Canada, I am not immune to these pressures either; I must constantly remind myself of the need to personally balance an innate drive to be perfect and perform at top-notch levels. Simply put, a bit of imperfection is okay.

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We know that these expectations differ for every woman depending on her unique social and economic challenges. But we also know that, according to Statistics Canada data, women spend an average of twice as much time on child care each week than men, and an average of 1.5 times as many hours on domestic work.

Even in homes where both partners equally contribute and share the load, a recent study finds that only men reap the workplace advantages. Women still face barriers to leadership positions and an average pay gap of 28 cents on every dollar, a differential that is even more exaggerated when you include other factors of disadvantage like race and disability.

One study found that women only applied for jobs when they felt they were 100 per cent qualified, while men went ahead and applied even when they were just 60 per cent qualified. Throughout my career, I have prompted the most capable women to take on leadership roles, but for some, it seems pressure to be "perfect" is holding them back.

We need to change what we expect of women – and of men – to rebalance the scale in order to unleash human potential in Canada and around the world.

As president and CEO of Plan International Canada, I am driven to redefine traditional gender roles both in the work we do abroad and the way we work at home. I want everyone to feel comfortable going against the grain to cultivate better ways of working together.

To successfully drive systemic change, leaders must encourage both men and women to look differently at traditional gender roles to create an environment where both men and women can focus on what is most important.

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This means building a work environment that accommodates family life and empowers and rewards all employees that seek more balance between professional and personal commitments. In some cases, it requires calling out those that continue to perpetuate gendered expectations that harm our society as a whole. As a female leader, I have a responsibility to empower women to have realistic and fair expectations of themselves that are reflected by the society around them.

Even at Plan International, an organization that lives and breathes equality in every aspect of our work here and abroad, I sometimes find these deeply rooted gender norms creeping to the surface. For example, when faced with a difficult organizational decision recently, I found myself thinking about what the "perfect" solution would be, the one that would make everyone happy. I went with the unpopular decision that I knew would serve the best interest of the organization.

There are benefits to all of us of resetting the scale. Studies have shown that companies with more women on the board and in leadership positions financially outperform those with fewer, on average. And when more women work, economies grow; an increase in female labour force participation results in faster economic growth. Furthermore, when women are economically successful and labour is shared more equally, incidents of gender-based violence decrease. Not to mention that the presence of strong female role models dramatically influences the perceptions and aspirations of young girls around the world.

Caroline Riseboro is president and CEO of Plan International Canada.

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