Women in Leadership: Opportunities lost. And not because our bosses are misogynist pricks

Yesterday, I spoke at the the Government of Alberta’s Women in Leadership: Paving the Way Conference, as part of the Systemic Barriers to Leadership session. The planning group asked me to speak at the Conference on the strength of my The CEO Has a Uterus–no, wait, the problem is that he doesn’t, but half his workforce does: Challenging the Status Quo in the Canadian Workplace Strategy Session column in Alberta Venture. I had a little bit of performance anxiety. And impostor syndrome. Because do you know who the keynote speaker was? Only Kim Campbell. Yes, Kim “first-and-only-woman-prime-minister-of-Canada” Campbell. And on my panel?

  • Donna Burnett Vachon, Associate Director with the Leadership and Human Resources Research Division of The Conference Board of Canada and author of “Women in Leadership: Perceptions and Priorities for Change”
  • Heather Caltagirone, Assistant Deputy Minister, Leadership and Talent Development, Government of Alberta
  • Dr. Malinda S. Smith, Political Science Professor at the University of Alberta, Chair of the Equity Committee for the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta, and Co-Chair of the Board for the Centre for Race and Culture in Edmonton

I had this distinct feeling at some point, someone was going to come up to me and say… “Um, excuse me? We made a mistake. We thought you were someone else…”

But, they never did!

Want to hear what I said? You can’t. But you can read a draft of my speech. I went off-script a little, because, you know, I do that. But mostly, it went like this:

Question: Why do women have limited access to the right development opportunities that provide leaders with the experience and visibility to advance?

OK. So why do women—why do you—have limited access to the development opportunities that provide experience, visibility, and launch you into leadership roles? What’s going on?

There is a really, really simple answer to this. And it’s not that our bosses are sexist assholes. That premier—what’s his name again?—who delivers an all-male cabinet? That CEO who keeps on appointing Joe, Bob, and Andrew—but never Sally—to VP positions?

They’re not misogynists pricks.

Something much more insidious is happening. Three things, actually, that collectively derail women from seizing—or being offered—development opportunities.

And they’re all such everyday, such basic acts that most people don’t even notice they’re doing them—or that they’re happening to them, to their colleagues.

The first is that in most organizations, leadership opportunities are ad hoc. They just… happen. There’s a conference. Who should go? How about Bob? Who’s the person choosing Bob? Jim. And Jim chooses Bob, and not Jeanette—not because, I stress, Jim is a misogynist asshole. Jim is a really nice guy. A great husband. So proud of his daughters—he’s sure the sky’s the limit for their potential. If someone told one of his girls she couldn’t do something because she has a vagina, Jim would totally lose it. No way was anyone going to do that to his daughter. No way.

Jim just… likes Bob. Jim and Bob are a lot alike. They use the same gym—chat in the same locker room. They understand each other. As Dr. Malinda Smith put it—that’s affinity bias, at work.

Bob is top of Jim’s mind when opportunities arise. Jeanette—who’s just as qualified, just as talented, just as hungry for that opportunity—isn’t. And, by the way, when Alice chooses people… she won’t necessarily choose Jeanette either. Bob’s top of mind for her a lot of the time too.

This mindset is so much harder to work on than outright discriminatory practices. Don’t you think?

The second—and this is an even bigger issue, the biggest one—is that these opportunities come at a very particular time in our careers and lives. We’ve got a degree or two. We’ve got our first job. Then maybe second. We’re earning our stripes. We’re in our late twenties. Early thirties. What are we doing in addition to building careers?

I’ll tell you what I did: I had a baby at 28. Another at 30. And then, of course, because life was just too easy, I had a third…

How many mothers in the room? Of kids under 12? Kids under five?

Is this the life stage at which you’re going to… take on that extra, high-profile project that will mean longer hours? Is this the stage at which you’re going to do weekend courses to upgrade your education—do a part-time MBA, a CA certification? Go for that promotion that will have you travelling to Malaysia once a month?

Some women do, and, babes—if you’ve done it, I have nothing but respect for you. They are, however, always extremely privileged women. Privilege is a loaded word, so here’s what  I mean by privileged—they have a kick-ass support network. A retired grandmother, a stay-at-home spouse or a partner with a flexible job. Nannies, assistants who go above and beyond.

They have wives.

I am a privileged woman. I have two grandmothers, a self-employed partner, and a village of aunties watching my back. And even with that, during my 30s, I consistently said no to opportunities.

I said no to incredible job opportunities. There’s this one job in particular… No to conferences. No to travel. No to high-stress projects.

I was very, very careful about where my time and my energy went.

It went into my family first—and when they were done taking it, there wasn’t an awful lot of it left for jumping at the brass ring, you know?

So—what happens when you say no often enough?

People stop asking you. People stop thinking of you. Maybe, even, you stop thinking of chasing those opportunities, of thinking they’re possible for you… And this is quite tragic—it’s the tragedy of the Canadian workplace. Because those demanding years—they’re a stage. They pass, right? And one day, you wake up—and you’ve been sleeping full nights for months. Years! Your children make their own lunches! Yes, you would absolutely love to go to London to spearhead that… oh? That position’s been filled? Oh. No, I can see why you’d think I wouldn’t be interested…

This brings me to the third thing: the ageism inherent in the Canadian workplace. Our workplaces have an age hierarchy. It should be an experience and talent and skill hierarchy—but it’s not. Not really. The young enter the workplace. And they progress through it, and its various levels, as they age. We talk about sequencing and latticing and lateral moves… but generally, there is an age hierarchy. And you know what?

Almost all of us are terrible at managing people older than ourselves.

We’re not that great at hiring them, actually.

And we’re really bad at realizing… that  40-year-old woman who’s just re-entered the workforce after a five, 10, 15 year pause? She’s actually a new hire full of potential. Who needs to be given the same kind of training and opportunity, the same launching pad, as that 24-year-old hot shot fresh out of grad school.

And we don’t notice that Jeanette—after operating at 60 per cent for a decade while her kids were little—is ready to run now. Faster than she’s ever dared run before…

This is a huge issue for immigrants, of all genders as well. And for committed fathers. For anyone following a non-linear career path.

So. For pretty much all Canadians.

How do we fix this? Simple. We change the culture of the Canadian workplace. Pretty much in its entirety.

And I think we’re going to discuss how we can do that in the next part of the session.

Thank you.

Women in Leadership ConferenceFor a look at how I prepared for the conference, visit Nothing By The Book: Leading, earning, building, breeding: vignettes from the trenches.