Trailblazing women at Board of Change panel discuss virtues of female leadership
A star-studded panel of women leaders engaged in a passionate discussion last Thursday night about one of the most pressing questions our time: what is the role of women and leadership in the new economy? And is a “womanly” business inherently more sustainable?
Organized by the Board of Change, the sold-out event drew a large crowd of men and women who packed into the SAP Executive Briefing Centre on Thursday. Audience members ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s, with professional backgrounds varying from law to food and catering.
Director Monika Marcovici explained that the The Board of Change, which counts over 1,000 members, values the pursuit of sustainability equally with the pursuit of profit.
The panel was moderated by Vancouver Observer founding publisher and editor-in-chief Linda Solomon. As a female publisher and CEO in a male-dominated media industry, Solomon has pushed for fairer media representation of women through the popular Feminista blog, which covers pop culture and politics from a feminist perspective.
The event, Solomon explained, was inspired by an unconference in Portland Oregon that “promoted the idea that emphasizing traditional female values is key to creating a living future."
"Womanly" virtues and how they impact leadership
“How could your womanly virtues make male leaders better leaders? Do you think these virtues or values are really capable of changing business structures and systems?” Solomon asked.
Consultant and former West Vancouver mayor Pamela Goldsmith Jones – who was described in Vancouver Magazine as an “effervescent” leader with “Jackie Kennedy flair” – spoke about the trait of 'commitment' as an essential part of being a leader.
“The Latin roots of the world 'commitment' is 'to bring together,'" she explained. “When I was leading, I was asking myself together every day: is this bringing people together? It pulls into relief what is antisocial about institutions, what is antisocial about how a meeting is set up.”
City Councillor Adriane Carr, meanwhile, noted that gender doesn't necessarily determine a leader's values, and that traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” virtues could exist in both men and women.
“Look at Margaret Thatcher -- hardly an example of women's values in politics, in my mind,” she said.
Reflecting on her own experiences, however, she pointed to perseverance was as a typically "feminine" virtue possessed by many women. Carr herself had run in seven elections before triumphing in last year's municipal elections, making political history as the first person elected to a major Canadian City Council position under the Green Party banner.
“There is a sense of perseverance and 'stick-to-itness' to make sure that you just get the problem solved, which is typical among many women I know,” she said.
SAP Global vice president of talent experience Tracey Arnish echoed Carr's sentiment by referring to the “bridge-brain,” a scientific term for men who think like women, and vice versa.
Arnish highlighted the tendency of women to create a collaborative environment to be one of their greatest virtues as leaders in today's business world.
“The keen focus on collaboration and inclusion is what brings about great ideas. It's what drives innovation,” she said.
For BC Sports Hall of Fame president and CEO Sue Griffin, the virtues that distinguish "phenomenal leadership" are “perseverance, passion, commitment, focus.”
Griffin spoke of risk-taking and working collaboratively as the biggest strengths of women working at the top level of their field.
“A common trait of women at executive level is commitment to take a risk...to take an opportunity, roll up our sleeves, and get'er done,” she asserted.
“We want to be sitting here”
Midway through the talk, Kat Norris – a Coast Salish/Nez Perce aboriginal representative – arrived slightly late to bless the event. Speaking of her own difficult experience with residential schools and racism, as well as her recent successes in education, her eyes filled with tears as she looked at the room filled with business and community leaders.
“We want to be sitting here,” she said in a strained voice, pointing to the audience. “But we're still struggling...we know people who come to our land with nothing, and they have businesses. We don't think we can do that still, just to have a corner store, a little restaurant.”
Audience members rose from their seats as her singing voice soared through the room, against the soft beat of her drum.
“Haichka,” Norris said – 'thank you' in Halkomelem, a Coast Salish language – as the audience sat back down in their seats, some visibly shaken by her story.
Can women leaders have it all?
Solomon then turned the conversation to the recently resurfaced debate about whether or not women can take on the responsibilities of work and family.
She referred to a widely-circulated story inThe Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" by former director of policy at the US State Department Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote of having to leave the Obama administration because of the rigid schedule in Washington. In her view, it was impossible for any woman to raise two teenage children on the White House schedule, which worked better for men.
On the flip side, Solomon brought up the example of Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg, who recently gave a TED talk saying that too few women are at the top because they “drop out” much too early, subconsciously restraining themselves in the workplace from the moment they begin to think about raising children.
The question of whether or not it is possible for women to perform as well as their male counterparts at the workplace while being a mother was a contested issue among panelists.
“Every woman who enters business world or politics doesn't stop being a mom, or a partner or a member of her community,” Carr emphasized.
“It's a huge set of responsibilities that can lead to major issues with stress and health."
In Carr's view, the main issue was the lack of the tools and support network for women who wanted to pursue careers without abandoning their role as parents.
Carr said that she co-chairs a non-partisan Women's Campaign School and that young women approach her regularly with the question of work-life balance. Men could focus on their jobs because women traditionally took care of the child-care and housework, and because society did not shame a man for doing so. Women today, however, did not yet have the same systems in place.
“What the heck is work-life balance? I don't know,” Carr laughed. “But I do know you can't do it without a network of support.”
Arnish, a mother of two young children, gave a nuanced response, saying that it was ultimately about choices and not giving into guilt over the consequences of making certain things a priority.
“I subscribe to the age-old adage of: you can have it all, just not at the same time,” she said.
“As women, we have to to move away from the guilt that we can't be everything to everybody all the time. Own your choice. Make the choice that's the right one for you and in doing so, you almost release yourself from these fears of, 'I can't succeed here or I'm failing there.' You take more risks.”
She said that she was lucky to be working for SAP, which allowed her the flexibility to be working outside the office, so long as she got her job done.
Photo by Jennifer Strang
Echoing Sandberg, she stated that young women need to be careful about holding themselves back in the workplace.
“You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don't take,” she said, quoting famous words from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky to encourage women to allow themselves to work at their full potential.
Women as leaders: a healthier society for all
Griffin reflected on her own experience of "owning" her choices, but more than women's individual choices, she suggested that institutions needed to implement major changes if they were going to make room for women at the top.
“Just 16 – 17 per cent of board members in corporate North America are women -- it’s pathetic,” she said.
Referring to her work in a provincial sports council, she said that she was currently working to integrate gender equity throughout the sports sector to give access to girls and women to participate.
“Part of that is a recommendation – it's going to piss a lot of people off – to say that in order to qualify for government funding for sports and recreation, you need to demonstrate a minimum 40 per cent female representation on your board. Take it to the next level, you need to demonstrate a minimum of 40 per cent senior management within your organization,” she said, as loud applause erupted from the audience.
“That's going to take a few years, but we're going to run with it.”
Forcing institutions to bring female leaders on as decision-makers, Carr said, would lead to a fundamental shift in Canadian politics.
“More women in politics create different decision-making,” she said, noting a UN report that 30 per cent of female parliamentarians is the tipping point to make important woman-led changes happen.
“The Scandinavian countries for example: where typically women are in the 40 – 50 per cent of parliamentarians...those are the countries in the world that have the lowest gap between rich and poor. There are very low levels of poverty. Two year parental leave for men and women. Universal childcare. Free post-secondary education. These are the kinds of policy outcomes that they have tied to a greater percentage of women in politics,” she said.
Implementing quotas for women
One member of the audience asked whether this type of enforced gender equity would open up the same debate as Affirmative Action did in the US, in which certain companies and post-secondary education institutions needed to admit a percentage of visible minorities. The move caused deep rifts in the US, creating a perception that some people that people of colour were given opportunities solely based on race, rather than ability.
“You never really know ---Am I only here because I'm a woman?” Goldsmith-Jones joked, as the room burst out in laughter.
“My question is, why would you want to go to just half the talent pool? In Wales, there was an election where only one time, there was a quota. They had to have half women and half men. They did it once, and they erased the law. But the people never went back to not seeing 50-50 representation.
"Sometimes, I can see why you make a push, but nothing that's authentic is forced.”
Arnish emphasized that if business organizations wanted to attract the top talent, they would have to drop the traditional male-oriented, top-down structure of leadership.
“The future generation is really forcing us to shift because they’re not going to tolerate the hierarchical approach that has played out in the past,” she said.
“For employers to bring in the talent that they need for the future, they've got to have that culture that the new talent pool wants to be a part of. It's going to be forced upon us.”
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