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When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office, he did one of the dumbest things possible, according to the conventional rules of management. He named a cabinet that was strictly gender-balanced, 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women.

It seemed an oddity then. Many people assumed it would trip him up: After all, critics argued, he hadn't chosen the best person available for each slot, he had succumbed to feminism. Two years later, then, it's worth highlighting that it worked.

Certainly, as we have watched the government stumble over the past few months, it hasn't been the women that have caused the greatest problems. Bill Morneau, anyone? The Bay Street powerhouse, supposedly ideal for finance minister, has been, at best, flat-footed. Kent Hehr, anyone? He has stumbled awkwardly more than once.

I'm not proposing that the government's problems over the past two years have come only from men. Mélanie Joly certainly doesn't deserve any awards for her cultural policy revamp. Maryam Monsef struggled with electoral reform (but the government was also staggeringly at sea on that file). Over all, though, most people would agree the women have performed as well as the men. Chrystia Freeland has certainly put cabinet veteran Stéphane Dion out of our minds. Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould have won many plaudits for their performance.

One has to be careful in judging cabinet ministers. The programs they champion are probably not their own, but stem from the party or the civil service. They have legions of aides and officials helping with the steering. Yes, they were in charge. But it's not quite the same as being chief operating officer of an 18-month-old startup.

Typically, only a few cabinet ministers shine and the others toil in obscurity, perhaps effectively or very effectively, but we don't notice. Putting political antipathies aside, how many cabinet members of the Stephen Harper or Jean Chrétien era were notably effective? Your current provincial government? So we have to beware of our judgments from afar and, indeed, the judgments from within the Ottawa bubble, so focused on gamesmanship, public relations and the portfolio's importance.

Yet the lesson remains from the current federal team: The women have done as well as the men. So why is business so frozen? Why do the statistics about the percentage of women in senior management and on boards never change but a smidgen? Perhaps it's because the mindset is rigid (and outdated) about what is needed.

Prime Minister Trudeau's commitment to gender equality – and I'll admit to thinking it was crazy when I first saw it in the Liberal platform – forced him to think differently about the people on his team. He had to look for different abilities and strengths. Before joining cabinet, many of his choices – both men and women, actually – didn't have the requisite government experience or the senior experience in the field that is normally prized but they had achieved success in their chosen career.

When we read about success, it's issues such as smarts, emotional intelligence, and grit that are critical. I have always liked psychologist Peter Suedfeld's work stressing the important of integrative complexity, the ability to deal with diverse ideas. Hireology's Adam Robinson brings it down to looking for attitude, accountability, past-related job success and cultural fit. Thinking on your feet is also vital for senior roles.

Indeed, perhaps the Prime Minister should have thought differently for finance. Why does it have to be a Bay Street guy for the job, especially when some of them are unbearably stolid and slow-footed? We have had 39 finance ministers since Confederation and all have been guys. Can women not count? Can women not understand how economies and finance and Bay Street work? And similarly, they can be effective in senior management and on boards – very effective, if given the opening.

So maybe you need to look at the gender-balanced cabinet, admit it has worked out, and think differently for the management positions and board positions in your own organization. We gain today in breadth and competence, and in the future, by showing younger women what is possible. Fifty-fifty may not be fluid enough – too limiting when one person leaves – but certainly something close, in the 60-40 range, is do-able, as Justin Trudeau and his team have shown.


  • The charity was for a worthwhile cause and would be in my area soon, so it was wondering if I had items to donate. That’s the positive. The negative? A recorded voice was talking to me and told me to stand by until somebody took the call. Why does call-centre management believe we have nothing better to do when they interrupt us than wait for them to come to the line?
  • A good way to ruin your corporate culture is to go on vacation and then e-mail as if you never left, signalling time off isn’t really time off, warns Katie Dennis, of the Project: Time Off initiative.
  • Make everybody bring personalized dishware for your workplace’s lunch room so it’s clear who is not doing their dishes, says Duke University Professor Dan Ariely.

U.S. President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau have launched a program to help boost women in business. The United States-Canada Council for the Advancement of Women Business Leaders was unveiled in a roundtable at the White House with women business executives.

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