A week ago I went to a breakfast roundtable where five female Bank of Montreal executives discussed what "having it all" really means.
The brave women were incredibly candid and their answers were thought-provoking, but what struck me most was the topic of conversation. None of my buddies are ever asked to opine on the same subject, yet women are constantly asked about juggling their families and their careers.
It may seem like a small anecdote, but for me, it illustrated how far we still have to travel when it comes to promoting women.
Despite this lopsided playing field, many men either believe things will naturally get better for women, or that they already are – they assume the advancement of women is no longer a pressing issue because surely by now everyone must have equal opportunity. I'm not sure which of the two makes me sadder.
The truth is, women have barely cracked the glass ceiling, and they have every right to be incensed – particularly if they work on Bay Street.
A decade ago, I wasn't the type to call for aggressive action. Merely discussing "gender equality" made me feel like I was one step away from being one of those feminists who debates whether women should be spelled with a "y."
I also believed, like so many others, that financial services is one of the few frontiers where hard work pays off – put in the effort and you'll rise up the ranks regardless of sex or race.
Fly close enough to the sun, though, and you'll see that theory is nothing more than a cute marketing line. Sure, there's been progress – women who work in syndication, for one, are no longer openly called "syndicate broads." But it's still a man's game, and I'm man enough to admit it. If you're a male executive, you should be too.
You can thank my mom for my change of heart. (Somehow, mothers have that touch.) Mine worked in financial services her whole career and she was the type of woman my sister and I were scared to cross when we were growing up. Not that she was a tyrant by any means, but she was the confident chief executive of our house and she strongly believed women shouldn't be pushovers.
A few months ago I went to my folks' house for a weeknight dinner and my mom mentioned she devoured Lean In by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. The fact she read it surprised me, because in my mind she didn't need to – she already embodied its main themes. Then she made my jaw drop by saying she identified with many of the anecdotes, such as never thinking to apply for jobs for which she didn't already have all the qualifications.
It turns out she isn't alone – research tells us that scores of confident women do the same. Men are much more likely to apply for jobs on a whim, believing they can sell themselves in the interview and make up for any gaping holes in their knowledge or experience.
Whether this is a genetic difference or something that is socialized from infancy doesn't really matter. The two sexes work in different ways and we can't assume that simply creating a spot or two for women at the boardroom table will allow them to succeed. Right now, men run the show, and that means the game is played by their rules.
Not to pick on investment banks, because asset managers and law firms also have very real diversity problems, but by my count, the capital markets arms of Canada's six largest lenders currently have 60 males in leadership positions, yet only 13 women of equivalent status. And even then some of these women run divisions such as human resources, which are viewed as 'softer' than the male-dominated, money-making business lines.
The lack of women high up not only makes it hard for juniors to see themselves reflected in the senior ranks, but it also influences day-to-day interactions.
A good female friend of mine works in digital advertising, and she often takes her clients to get their nails done. I sometimes chuckle imagining how male corporate lawyers would react if they had to win business by going for Shellac polishes.
We can't get too far ahead of ourselves. Not every woman will be qualified for senior positions, and let's be realistic, some women don't want to rise that high anyway. But as 21st century men, we can certainly do a better job of giving the qualified candidates a better chance of surviving.
To start, let's stop referring to Women in Capital Markets with Type-A personalities as "wiccums" – used as a substitute for another pejorative term applied to strong women – when men with similarly aggressive attitudes are heralded as go-getters.
Some Bay Street leaders already see it this way. BMO chief execuutive Bill Downe and former Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce chief operating officer Richard Nesbitt, to name a few, have been incredibly supportive of promoting women. But we need an army, because history has proven that substantial change often requires a long, slow grind and there's still so much to do.
The gender issue is finally back on peoples' radars for the first time in nearly 30 years. It would be a shame to let the groundswell go to waste.