Across disciplines and countries, in government, politics, academics and organizations of all kinds, women have demonstrated time and time again the power and possibilities that female leadership brings to the table. Female leadership boosts capacity for innovation, augments the quality of decision-making and translates directly into business success (the magnitude of which is not small: companies with strong female leadership see a 36% higher return on equity than those without).
However, despite these achievements, it remains true that women represent too small a percentage of leadership roles. For example, although Canada’s federal cabinet is now evenly split between men and women, only 27% of the seats in the House of Commons belong to women. Moreover, only 8.5% of the highest-paid positions in Canada’s top 100 listed companies are held by women.
So why is that? It’s not a lack of qualifications. Women have been outnumbering men in higher education since the 90’s. What women have to combat instead is a slew of misperceptions – notions that they don’t have what it takes, that they don’t belong, or that leadership characteristics are male qualities.
At A&S, we’re believers in the power of inclusivity, equality, mentorship and a female-forward approach. We realize that a woman’s relationship with leadership doesn’t begin when she’s named to a leadership role. That trajectory is shaped much earlier, and is affected each day by the models and influences she has around her. That’s why for International Women’s Day this year, we wanted to reach out to some of the talented and tenacious female-identifying leaders within our reach to hear about how they shaped their pathways to success.
We asked them each a single question:
As a leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career, and how did you overcome it (or how do you continue to overcome it)?
These women kindly offered their experiences, shedding light on the realities of what it means to push boundaries, surpass barriers and achieve greatness in both their careers and lives. Here’s what they had to say:
Christina is the VP of Business Development & Revenue at Woodbine Racing
“Society has sent us too many mixed messages about what being a strong woman means”
As a woman who worked in professional sports, Christina found that too many times she was the only woman in a room full of men. She notes that these are structural barriers that must change, and that businesses must recognize that diversity is strength – for their bottom line, their customers, for the world.
But on an ongoing everyday basis, she felt as though she was the biggest barrier to herself – doubting that she had enough experience and talent to be the boss, wondering if she should really speak up in a meeting, beating herself up for the smallest mistake or misstep.
“Society has sent us too many mixed messages about what being a strong woman means.
But as I get older, I say screw it. Own your strength, your voice, look at failure as an opportunity to grow. Find your sisterhood and allies if you must, but keep fighting for your right to be at the table. It’s not always going to work but keep fighting anyway”
From Chrisitna, we learn that stepping into leadership means silencing the self-doubt. Sometimes it takes a reminder that we have permission to be vocal and to unapologetically own our role.
Ingrid Muschta is a Diversity & Inclusion Specialist with Ontario Disability Employment Network (ODEN). You can find more about ODEN at odenetwork.com.
“In my life, barriers to access to education and opportunities have been put up by people who have old and misinformed prejudgments.”
Born in El Salvador, Ingrid immigrated to Canada where her lack of English became a barrier to accessing education. Thankfully, under the guidance of two fierce and determined female teachers, she learned quickly.
However, after completing her undergrad in engineering came another barrier to access: career opportunities in a male dominated field like marine engineering were averted by old attitudes and erroneous beliefs that she was too inexperienced or delicate to keep up.
“So, along with many female engineers before me, I demonstrated that skill and grit would prove just as important as experience. My physical appearance and strength stopped being a topic of conversation when I demonstrated how involving me in a project helped the company succeed.”
Now, in a field greatly dominated by women, she finds that this sector has its own barriers. Ingrid points to research showing that in Ontario, the non-profit sector is women-majority but not always women-led (Decent Work for Women- A literature review of women working in Ontario’s non-profit sector, Ontario Not for Profit Network, 2019).
“In my life, barriers to access to education and opportunities have been put up by people who have old and misinformed prejudgments. I continue to advocate for access, based on merit, skill, grit and passion, for not only myself but the people who I now so proudly represent: talent who are ready to join the labour force, talent who have a disability.”
Ingrid’s experiences speak to the fact that we must actively intercept and disrupt what others may (falsey) believe we can or can’t do. Her story is a glowing reminder that we dictate our own limits.
Emily is a Leadership Coach & Facilitator
“To have the impact I want as a leader, I continue to challenge my ceiling.”
Emily tells us that when she looks back over her career, she has been her own most significant barrier. “My ceiling,” she says, “becomes the ceiling of my team, the leaders I coach and the organization I act on behalf of.”
In early attempts at leadership, Emily confesses that she was a “boss” more than a “leader”. She believed her job was to have all the answers and to shelter her team from challenging decisions. “I led from the front – believing by adopting a facade of strength and confidence – I would convince others to follow. Some reluctantly did. Some didn’t. Inevitably, I failed to unleash the amazing talent and contributions of the team around me.”
However, with the support of a coach and tough feedback from her team, she had the first of many a-ha moments that allowed her to shift her mindset, hone her leadership skills and slowly move the ceiling. She began to better understand herself, learn how to close the gap between her intention and her impact, and ultimately, keep her most significant barrier on the sidelines.
Emily’s message calls to mind the “contagious” quality of strong leadership – it permeates a team at every level. What resonates in particular with us is the authenticity she speaks of: the leaders we tend to admire most are those who don’t feign strength, but inspire it through their interactions with their team.
Belinda is the VP of Marketing & Partnerships at SPC Student Price Card.
“I surrounded myself with a small, but mighty tribe of women.”
For Belinda, the biggest challenge has been finding her tribe. She realized early in her career that she needed to evaluate her friendships and work relationships with a focus on finding a group of women at work and in life that made her feel strong, cheered her on and told her the truth – even if it was hard.
“I surrounded myself with a small, but mighty tribe of women. We’re focused on guiding each other through difficult times, sharing networks, cheering each other on, growing empathy and telling it to each other straight.”
While they have each played different roles for one another at different times, this warrior tribe has seen Belinda through the best (and worst) times in her career and life. Alone they are strong and mighty alone, but together – they are unstoppable.
Belinda reminds us how powerful the support of like-minded allies can be, especially in trying times. We all go through similar struggles and asking for advice and help can alleviate some of the daily strain.
Sarah is the General Manager of Laundry & Home Care at Henkel Canada Corporation.
“I’m a firm believer that life is ‘choose your own adventure’ so I make it work based on what’s important to me and I accept the consequences.”
Sarah is both a woman in leadership and a working mom. Neither of these things she views as a barrier – but rather a challenge and a privilege. Most of her male counterparts have stay-at-home spouses to take care of their kids, and will never know what it’s like to balance daycare drop-off with dinner prep on top of a demanding job.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have days where that felt unfair, but those are the same peers that will never know the joy and love of being a mother.”
For Sarah, it comes down to values and choices. As a firm believer that life is “choose your own adventure”, she consistently makes it work based on what’s important to her and accepts the consequences. Over the years those choices have included moving closer to work to reduce her commute, saying “no” to non-critical business travel and asking for modified offsite start times to accommodate childcare drop-off and pick-up.
“Have these choices impacted my career? Maybe. Maybe not. And that’s ok because they are my choices and my adventure.”
We love Sarah’s mental model of prioritizing what’s important in a given situation and being at peace with the consequences it may bear. She reminds us that staying true to one’s values can help make decisions and boost confidence.
Heidi is the Marketing Director at Tourism Toronto
“Corporate life is still nowhere close to being flexible enough to support the needs of two working parents.”
The biggest challenge by far for Heidi is about believing that you can be both a successful business woman while still being a successful mom and good partner. Corporate life is still nowhere close to being flexible enough to support the needs of two working parents, she tells us. She expressed that while taking a year off of mat leave gave her precious time with her child, she couldn’t help but feel stress regarding her career growth.
“Most days I feel like I either succeed at work or succeed as a mom. Not both as one always seems to compromise the other.”
Managing it for her meant realizing that balance between work-life and home-life, if that “balance” meant getting to spend more time with her family, is “BS concept”. With longer work days, measuring balance in this way was just making her angry.
“Now it is simply about being present with family when I am with my husband and child. And being present at work when I am at work. Present with friends when I am with friends. And burying my cell more to help me be more present. I tether myself to the people I am with. Simpler than it sounds for sure and work in progress.”
For many working moms, especially those who take care of a lot more of the household responsibilities, the ideal of a proper “work-life-balance” can feel impossible to obtain. Heidi cleans up this misleading concept and replaces it with something so much more effective and attainable: being present in the moment.
Margaret, or MK, is the Director of Operations at Art & Science
“Am I qualified for this job? Can someone else do my job better?”
MK’s career up to this point has been mostly comprised of new positions within companies. She tells us she feels fortunate to have experienced managers and work environments that allow for people and process to evolve, but by way of this, she finds herself having to apply skills she didn’t learn directly in school and navigating new sets of responsibilities no one in the company has ever been fully responsible for.
“It’s definitely the most exciting and motivating part, but also most triggering in terms of the imposter syndrome. The same thoughts circle in my mind often: Am I qualified for this job? Can someone else do my job better?”
MK advises that to overcome these thoughts, it takes discipline to not question the validity of your job as a whole. Instead, she focuses on finding opportunities to improve the output of the individual responsibilities at hand, approaching each task with her philosophy: ‘Get it done and get it done better every time’.
While many of us are no stranger to the symptoms of imposter syndrome, MK’s message about acting in the moment is a crucial tactic to reel in those far-out insecurities. We also love the way she has embraced ambiguity with open arms, inspiring us to think of it as an opportunity rather than something to be feared.
At A&S, we found these responses incredibly inspiring, motivating and hope you were able to take a new idea or insight from this article.
With the goal of inspiring other leaders shaping their careers, we would like to wholeheartedly thank these wonderful women who contributed their responses and trusted us to tell their story.
A&S is excited and proud to celebrate women’s achievement and forge a gender equal world. Learn more about International Women’s Day or Art & Science, we’d love to hear your thoughts and connect.
Written by Lucia Davenport and Elli Seregelyi