It’s no secret that gender parity in most industries still has a long way to go. While women make up half or almost half of all professionals in the accounting, medicine, and law fields, for example, they account for an abysmally small number of workers in the information and communication technology (ICT) and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sectors.

But arguably the most concerning statistic, however, is the fact that men are two to three times more likely to be in management positions than women, with females holding just over 34 per cent of such positions in Canada in 2015-2016. And in the same years, women held only 20 per cent of all board seats available in Canada. While the Canadian government has committed to raising this number to 30 per cent by 2019, there has been no update on whether this will be achieved any time soon.

This raises the question of how we can encourage more women to strive for – and achieve – leadership positions. The Global Diversity Council held a Women in Leadership Symposium on July 6 at Ryerson University, and its panel of six women executives discussed just that.

One of the biggest issues pointed out by speaker Leslie Woo, chief planning officer at Metrolinx, is the notion that we live in a “meritocracy.”

“We think we live in a meritocracy where if you work hard and pay your dues, you’ll be rewarded, but that’s incredibly false, and especially false for minority groups like women,” she told the audience.

“There is a certain amount of fairness built into hiring processes and structures, but at the end of the day, we’re all human and all humans have a natural tendency to gravitate towards others like them or those who share the same thoughts. And so if every industry is led by men, and predominantly old white men, the scale is already tipped against us, and we have to constantly compensate for that.”

Gale Blank, vice president of IT at Holt Renfrew, added to this, saying that in a playing field that started off unbalanced, “women need to figure out how to be heard in such an environment.”

Not everyone is born to be a leader, but Blank emphasized that everyone has leadership qualities that can be utilized to drive their career forward. For those feeling lost, stuck, or overwhelmed, she advised that the most important motivator is knowing where you’re going and having a plan to get there.

“Everyone needs to have a vision of where they want to be or end up, and plan accordingly,” Blank said, although she was adamant that people shouldn’t have one plan for their work life and one plan for life outside work.

“Everyone needs to have a holistic plan on how to live their life and how to achieve their goals,” she said. “But your plan for work and your plan for home and social life need to be integrated – if they’re separate, you’ll only end up fighting yourself.”

Emotions and soft skills are positives, not negatives

Michelle Brooks, vice president of human resources at enterprise mobility management firm SOTI, began her conversation on authenticity by bringing up the seemingly inevitable sexist point of whether women are “too emotional” for leadership positions.

“Every single day women are called dramatic, over-emotional, irrational, and any other synonym you can think of. And even if you haven’t heard it explicitly, you can bet it’s been said behind your back. I’m here to challenge the very premise of that, however: being emotional is not a bad thing!” she exclaimed.

Brooks explained that emotions should drive someone’s reaction and should be nothing to be ashamed of.

“Both men and women have hundreds and hundreds of emotions, and they’re just a completely natural physiological response. Emotions are authentic, and authentic leaders are the ones that are truly approachable and successful. No one wants to work with a robot,” she laughed.

Brooks also said that embracing emotion will help women in particular better understand themselves so they can both admit their shortcomings, and adapt their leadership style based on their situation.

Kimberly Lesley, vice president and delivery leader at Capgemini, a technology consulting provider, echoed these thoughts.

“Being a good leader also means modifying how exactly you lead based on the circumstance you’re in, or the people you’re with. Leading is about getting your point across, and not everyone responds the same way or to the same style, so as a leader, you need to be aware of that,” she concluded.

“It may sound selfish, but you need to ask yourself ‘what’s the best way to achieve my objective?’ and adapt your leadership style based on that answer and what surrounds you.”

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