Sunir Chandaria is the chair of YPO Canada and Honorary Consul of Kenya in Toronto. Laura McGee is a consultant at McKinsey & Company and co-founder of #GoSponsorHer
The Canada-U.S. Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders recently released its first recommendation on "Supporting and Growing Women-Owned Businesses." Its findings are clear: there's a strong business case for investing in women entrepreneurs but progress is far too slow. Women own fewer than 10 per cent of companies with 100-plus employees, and fewer than 20 per cent of companies with one or more employee. There is significant entrepreneurial talent that remains untapped.
The council recommends four tactical steps to drive change, including public and private procurement, greater representation in networks and accelerators, and government policies to alleviate unpaid care. These policy changes are important but only part of the solution: real and lasting change will require a shift in culture and attitudes. The council makes a clear and unequivocal call to action for men – not just women – to take part in actualizing this change.
Time and again, women cite attitudes and biases as the number one factor limiting their advancement. Research tells us men are reluctant to meet with women alone and are fearful of sponsoring high-potential women. Recent events like the Harvey Weinstein scandal – while shedding important light on sexual harassment – risk having a further "chilling effect" on these attitudes.
We cannot afford to exclude men from the conversation. Change that proposes to benefit everyone will not happen fast enough unless all genders take ownership of their capacity to impact this topic and commit to driving forward faster.
The good news is there is plenty that men can do to move the dial for women entrepreneurs as investors, partners and champions:
One of the biggest barriers facing women is unconscious bias – and this harms men as well as women. For example, research has found that investors tend to ask women entrepreneurs different and "preventive" questions about their business plans, often putting them on the back foot. Being aware of your bias can help you overcome it.
Acknowledge and discuss harmful attitudes
One of the most alarming recent findings is how reluctant men and women are to spend time alone together. One scholar found that two-thirds of senior men and one-half of junior women shied away from sponsorship relationships out of fear for what others might think. Yet time together is a critical component of trust building. Circulating articles and reports to your peers is a good way to start a healthy fact-based discussion.
Take personal action
Building on this knowledge, men should take personal action to identify and invest in a high-potential woman. Be her mentor, be her sponsor, and have the courage to disregard what others might think.
Be clear about your relationship at the outset
A meaningful sponsorship relationship sometimes entails spending time together outside of normal working hours, whether by attending professional events together or simply discussing one's career over a meal. Some men may worry that their offer of sponsorship may be perceived the wrong way. This is easily fixed. Think about leading with: "How would you like to go for a mentor/sponsor dinner to discuss your career?" It goes without saying that once you've set this standard, you must stick to it.
Be a role model
Singing the praises of talented women in your network is not only helpful to them, it signals others to do the same. The Council and others have taken on the incredibly tough challenge of changing long-standing social norms. This will not happen overnight, but we believe progress can be sped up with a healthy dose of peer pressure. We saw this happen with #GoSponsorHer – over 150 C-suite leaders joined the campaign within weeks, many of whom were previously unaware of the stats around sponsorship. Each of these leaders has since met with a high-potential woman at least once – a good first step towards changing social conventions.
The good news is that influential organizations across Canada are making bold moves to drive cultural change. Others must do more of this. We don't pretend this is easy – leaning in will take both courage and commitment. It is the right thing to do from both a social and business perspective and the men who figure this out will find themselves at a significant advantage.