How to make a leader

The case for cultivating female leaders


"Once, power was considered a masculine attribute. In fact, power has no sex."

When Katharine Meyer Graham said it, it was aspirational.

It’s been four decades since Graham became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, taking the helm of the Washington Post.

Since she broke through the glass ceiling, she’s had some stellar company. Every year, women rise to a greater number of leadership roles in corporate British Columbia, Canada and North America.

That’s the good news.

But women still account for just 5.3 per cent of Canadian CEOs and hold only 15.9 per cent of board seats in S&P/TSX 60 companies.

“It’s not great news,” says Jill Earthy, vice-chair of the Women’s Enterprise Centre and co-author of the report Women as a Catalyst for Economic Growth: A British Columbia Action Plan.

“There’s great work that’s been done, we’ve made so much progress,” she says. “Certainly, women do have way more opportunities than in the past. But a lot of the data is showing that they’re choosing not to take them, for various reasons.”

Studies show women in Canada still make 72 cents on the dollar, compared to men, Earthy points out.

Women are coming out of professional programs in equal or even greater numbers than men, she says. “But we’re losing a lot of women mid-career, and it’s not just because of child care. I think that’s a misperception,” Earthy says.

“It’s simply because they’re making other choices, more around the environment. They’re motivated by different things; they don’t necessarily want to play in the power game but would rather go to the side and create something new.”

In B.C., the numbers are – slightly – better.

Among B.C.’s 50 largest organizations, the average female representation on the board of directors and the average percentage of women in senior management positions were both 20 per cent – better than the Toronto Stock Exchange, Canadian and global benchmarks.

And 16 of the 50 had policies in place to promote hiring and career development for women.

But of 36 companies that provided information on their boards of directors, 31 per cent had no women on those boards, and of 45 that disclosed information on senior executives, 36 per cent did not have any women in those ranks.

Just 12 per cent had a female CEO.

The glacial pace of improvement makes it unlikely that Canada will reach the federal government’s goal of 30 per cent female board members by 2019.

A challenge remains in persuading not just corporate leaders, but women themselves, to improve on those numbers.

“Even having females on our teams, in our workforce, is a struggle sometimes because there’s not enough women applying for jobs,” says Tammy Meyers, co-founder of QuestUpon, a virtual reality technology company.

Meyers is the only woman in her 10-person company, despite having a CEO who is dedicated to improving gender balance.

“We don’t get females putting their resumés in so we don’t have that to even hire from,” she says.

“I think it’s every company you talk to in the tech industry. They’re few and far between where you’re going to find a balanced workforce in a tech company.”

The gender gap in tech is well known, but forestry and oil and gas have the worst gender diversity performance in industry, according to the Minerva Foundation’s report.

Educating company officials is important, Meyers says, but so is educating young women and girls about their potential career options.

“Definitely, when I go to events or conferences or anything tech-related, the room is primarily filled with men, which is fine. I still find myself counting, ‘How many women are here?’” she says.

The CEOs of 17 B.C. organizations have signed the Minerva Foundation’s Face of Leadership Pledge, a commitment to promote women into leadership positions.

One of those companies is Goldcorp.

Anna Tudela joined the B.C.-based mining giant in 2005, two decades into her career in the traditionally male-dominated industry.

“My first mining conference I walked into the room and I left because I thought, ‘Oh, I’m in the wrong place,’” recalls the company’s vice-president of diversity and regulatory affairs and corporate secretary.

“I went to reception and I asked, ‘Can you please tell me the room for the mining conference?’ and they said, ‘You just came from there. I thought, OK, there’s no women in there.”

In 2010, following a flurry of acquisitions by Goldcorp that took Tudela back to her native Peru and throughout South America, she had an idea.

“I realized that what I had left, many years ago when I emigrated from Peru,… was exactly the same,” she says. “Women were not taken into consideration to the level that a woman is taken into consideration in North America – not given the opportunities to succeed in a career.”

She wanted that to change, and she had Goldcorp’s support. She began by convincing mine managers in the region that their operations could benefit from leadership training for women.

Once everyone was on board, Tudela realized she needed a program and didn’t have one. Working with women throughout the company and leadership experts, Goldcorp custom-built Creating Choices, which debuted in 2011.

Today, more than 1,350 women have completed the program.

Despite some cultural challenges in both an industry and region of the world that have traditionally been very male-dominated, it was not difficult to find women who wanted in.

“It was incredible,” Tudela says.

At the first mine, in Guatemala, 250 women enrolled.

“It was almost like they were starving for something like this,” she says.

Graduates have access to a one-year mentoring program.

“The program is not aimed at changing your job if that’s not what you want to do. But if you want to do that, if you want to climb the ladder … it gives you the skills and the tools to do it,” she says.

Graduates wanted more, and in 2014, the Growing Choices program was introduced. A third module, Future Choices, is in the works.

Tracking any resulting shift is challenging, she says, but two impact assessments found that women who took part in the programs have been more likely to request promotions and take on new jobs.

Goldcorp has just completed its first diversity survey, to provide a baseline not just on gender but on diversity overall that can be tracked as the company tries to address equality issues.

It was the first mining company to have such a program for women.

“By now, I would hope somebody else has a program similar to ours,” says Tudela, who adds spearheading the program has been a rewarding experience.

“This was something I did because I truly believe this is something we needed to do,” she says.

Despite its commitment to closing the gender gap at home and abroad, Vancouver-based Goldcorp has just one female senior executive, according to the Minerva scorecard, accounting for 10 per cent of the upper ranks. Three of its 11 board members are female.

The case for cultivating female leaders is not just altruistic. There is an economic imperative, too, says Earthy.

“Diversity is good for the bottom line. It’s an economic opportunity, versus a women’s issue,” she says.

“It’s about diversity of thought. You want gender diversity and you also want the diversity in the backgrounds and cultures, and that makes stronger conversations at the leadership level and better decisions overall.”

The Women as a Catalyst report finds several barriers for women in senior management roles.

While there is no shortage of women with the skills, they are too often lost in a leaky pipeline to the top, owing to outdated leadership models, self-limiting mindsets, societal gender biases and a lack of workplace flexibility, among other things.

And women need more champions, says Earthy, which is not the same as mentorship.

“The championship piece is so critical because it’s really about having people who are in positions of influence who have your back and are looking out for opportunities that you might not see for yourself, encouraging and nudging you forward to go for something that you may not otherwise do,” she says.

Educating girls and young women is also key, says Meyers. They need to understand what options are possible, in tech in particular.

“A lot of that is some reprogramming about what ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ jobs look like,” she says. “That comes back to education in schools.”

She is part of the newly formed BC Women in Technology, a new group of men and women whose aim is to promote technology careers among women.

“There is definitely a gender gap in education,” she says.

Government, industry and individuals all have a role to play, says the Women as a Catalyst report.

It recommends B.C. adopt the comply-or-explain approach for publicly traded companies, which requires them to publicly report on diversity targets, as well as incorporate business and diversity content into the school curriculum.

Industry can develop diversity policies, talent management systems to support women, and more flexible work environments with improved maternity and paternity benefits.

Businesses can also promote diversity with a 30 per cent target for female members of their executive and board of directors, it recommends.

Individuals can sponsor promising young female leaders, nominate female colleagues for awards and recognition, and keep the diversity conversation going with friends and colleagues.

They can challenge ingrained practices and champion solutions within their own organizations.

And they can use the power of their pocketbook, by supporting companies with diverse leadership.

There are many companies in B.C. that are doing amazing work, Earthy says.

Change takes time, especially in larger organizations, but awareness is increasing, Earthy says. Women are “calling it out.”

“If there is an all-male panel, or [you’re] sitting at a boardroom table and there’s a conversation and you realize you’re the only woman, just constructively raise that,” she says. “And there are men who are doing that, too. It’s our responsibility, all of us, to make sure there is diversity and to start to challenge that if there isn’t.”

Women and men must set up the next generation to take advantage of the opportunities, says Earthy, who has two daughters.

“How can I ensure that they’re not having the same conversations that I’ve been having for 25 years?” ç