Woman speaking into megaphoneThis blog post was originally published on the Realfword.

A couple years ago I took 10 young female managers from my company to a leadership session hosted by WXN (Women’s Executive Network) for female leaders. That year, I had the honour of being awarded one of Canada’s top 100 most Powerful Women, and on the day of the gala awards they hosted a symposium for women. I was excited that the team of female managers/leaders I took had the opportunity to listen to successful female leaders on a variety of topics.

One of the sessions had a panel of accomplished women who shared their professional experiences and wisdom from their tremendous success. The room was thick with buzz and excitement. I remember smiling to myself as I looked around the audience at so many hopeful, young women eager to learn about creating their own career paths for success.  As well, there were many established women who were equally excited to learn from the successful corporate executives, public servant and an entrepreneurs on this esteemed panel.  WXN does an outstanding job in highlighting women and promoting mentorship.

The panel was filled with confident and passionate female leaders who shared their journey, and the audience eagerly jotted notes.  But it was the question and answer period when it hit me like a tsunami. This is when I learned that not all successful women understand the plight of inequality issues, nor are they equipped to address it.  It’s important for me to point out that I don’t agree with the notion that women are their own worst enemies when it comes to professional support and that women negatively target other women in their career.  I have never encountered this and I whole heartedly believe it is total bullshit.  Does it happen?  Yes.  However, what people are actually referring to is the innate competitiveness that exists in the corporate world; where men compete against men, women against women, and women against men.  It’s just that simple, women are not out to “get” other women.  It is a competitive world out there and sometimes we run into unsupportive people, both male and female.

Back to the tsunami, one of the questions posed to the panel was, “What’s the one piece of advice you would give women to break the glass ceiling?”  One corporate executive, the President of a major corporation, eagerly responded with the following, “You won’t like my answer, but stop having babies, I made a choice to not have children and it paid off, you can NOT have both”.

What the hell?!  Did she just say that?  The silence that ensued was one of shock, and it rippled throughout the room.   I looked around at the faces of my leadership team, who clearly appeared dumbfounded.  I had to hold myself back from running onto the stage and shouting “are you freaking kidding me?!!!”  I won’t name her personally, LOL…but suffice it to say, she was the head of a cola company in Canada and I immediately switched from drinking Diet Pepsi to Diet Coke!  I think I still get pissed off when I see a can of Pepsi.

AND just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, one of the other panelist chimed in and agreed that not having children was the only way to win against gender inequality in the workplace and that we shouldn’t be surprised if get stuck in middle management if we choose a career as well as children.   I won’t name her either LOL…

These women have just set this entire room of female leaders back 30 years in 5 minutes.  Fortunately, the other panelists vehemently disagreed.  They handled this controversy with much more grace than I would have.  One spoke of her three children, and how she managed to successfully raise them to be loving, confident young people, all while becoming the CEO of a giant hydro company.  The other panelist an entrepreneur, a brilliant woman who didn’t have children, but fully intended to.  Yay for them!  I didn’t have to charge up to the stage after all.

Here’s the thing, the two anti-children female panelists are certainly entitled to their opinions, but I can’t help but think that their opinions created a tiny bit of doubt in the minds of the many young women that day.  Not exactly positive reinforcement.  I respect their own personal decisions in not having children – it can’t be easy in today’s society telling family, colleagues and friends you don’t want to be a mother.  Good for them for making a personal choice that was right for them, and not bending to what was expected of them because of gender biases.  But, they missed the whole point, didn’t they?

I’ve raised two daughters and half a son, (he’s only 14, so still lots of work to do), while aggressively focusing on my family, career and company.  Was it hard?  You’re damn right, but hey, life is hard, for most of us.   Did I make sacrifice?  You bet.  Would my children say they missed out on anything or feel that my career got in the way of our family, or feel less loved and nurtured?  No freaking way…. and trust me, I’ve asked them.

So, we will continue to raise our voices and address gender inequality issues, for both men and women. My sense is that many of our existing leaders today are stuck in 1979, and are struggling with even acknowledging that gender inequality exists.

If you still aren’t convinced that gender inequality exists, here are a few stats that will intrigue you:

  • Over 72% of Canadian households are made up of two working parents, up from 35% in 1976.  Bottom line is that raising a family is expensive. Both parents generally have to work.  Add to this, 20% of working parents are single parents, and 8 out of 10 of these are women. 
  • Women in Canada earn 28% less than men, and this gap is widening, not closing.
  • Women in Canada are becoming better educated than men with over half of university grads being women and 35% of those are MBA graduates.
  • Canada doesn’t have a viable child care policy program.
  • Women represent only 10% of seats on board of directors.
  • Women hold only 5.2 % of the CEO roles at Fortune 500 companies.
  • Women hold only 8% of top paid jobs in Canada.
  • 21% of single moms are raising their children in poverty in Canada, versus 9.6% of the total Canadian population living below the poverty level.
  • 50% of women in Canada above the age of 18 have experienced sexual or physical assault.

Furthermore, we should ask ourselves, “Is gender bias getting better with the younger generation?”  Not necessarily.  According to recent studies at top universities, they asked graduating MBA students what their salary expectations after graduating.  On average, female students stated their starting salary expectations were 80% of what their male counterparts stated.  And guess what?  They were right!  One year after graduating, they earned 80-90% of their male counterparts.  Yes, these are our young people who will lead our businesses and countries going forward.  Ugh!

I would add that this issue spills over into our home life.  Gone are the days where the male goes out to hunt and kill the food and the female stays home to protect her cubs, some people haven’t figured it out yet!  When it comes to sharing domestic responsibilities, we seem to be far from equal as there are still many preconceived stereotypes on division of labour in the home.  Yes, of course many couples have this figured out, but for every one of them there are others where the woman carries a huge burden.  I hear this from so many young women in my travels and they are looking for solutions.

This is a huge societal issue.  Why?  Heart disease is now the number one killer in women. We are stressing the hell out of our women.  Also, 43% of marriages end in divorce!  More than 60% of them will divorce again.  This can’t all be because of damn Ashley Madison can it?  Hey you over there… yeah you, the man, it’s called a Hoover…try it sometime!  Ladies, for god sakes, learn to cut the grass and hand over the oven mitts.

So what can we do?  First, we can stop being embarrassed about talking about this issue.  It’s real, and when feminism become a bad word?  Feminists: a range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal to achieve political, economic, cultural, personal and social rights for women.  (You know, 50% of the population!  Women: white, of colour, educated, uneducated, wealthy, poor, all of them.)  We should never tolerate negative feedback and comments that we are whining about equality.  We have a responsibility to work towards closing the gap.  Why?  At the current pace of change, experts estimate the wage gap won’t disappear until 2125.  That’s 110 years from now for God’s sake.  Apparently we will live on another planet, drive flying cars before we achieve equal pay! That means, if you give birth to a child today, their children will be retired before it exists.  Moms, dads, aunts, uncles…are you okay with that?  I doubt it.

So, let’s acknowledge it exists, because we can’t speed up the pace of change until we do.  Here are a few things I think we can all take personal responsibility towards and wrap our arms around.

Here’s my 3 point program:

Step 1: Parents: walk the walk, talk the talk…

Set an example for the next generation.  Talk to your spouses about sharing responsibility. Make a list of every responsibility in the home, agree on an equal distribution.  Easier said than done, but vitally important.   Categorize by level of time commitment e.g. Category A: making meals daily isn’t the same as category C: cutting grass once a week. Teach our sons.  Allocate cooking, washing equally.  For God’s sake teach sons to cook!  They eat don’t they?  Teach our daughters to hang a picture, cut the lawn, etc.

Talk to your children.  Tell them how you both feel about gender equality.  You don’t agree with inequality any more than you agree with racism.  Give them examples of gender inequality that they will encounter and how to deal with it.  Talk the talk.

Step 2: Attention Managers/Leaders

  • Take a hard look at your enterprise. Calculate male to female manager ratio.  How does it compare?  If it is inequitable, put a plan in place to change it. I have heard some people have an issue with this type of planning and state that people should only obtain roles based on their qualifications, not their gender or colour or race.   I don’t think they have actually figured out that taking this position suggests that there aren’t appropriately qualified women?  Dumb asses.
  • Review your compensation for male versus females with the same level of responsibilities and experience. How does it look?  Immediately rectify any wage gaps.
  • Be perfectly transparent about it. Tell your employees that you have conducted an equity review and are making changes.  This action alone promotes loyalty and engagement.
  • Create a mentorship program for both women and men.
  • Create a company policy prohibiting gender inequality and sexual harassment and distribute it. Include a mediation process for employees to raise issues. Take it seriously, you are in a position to make change.

Step 3: Calling all Women, Young and Old

Before you get married or engage in a long-term relationship:  ask your fiancé about how they feel about gender equity.

Make sure you know what their goals are as a parent, career and he knows about yours, and then agree on how you will both manage to support your individual goals.  Do not assume.  You know what happens when you make assumptions!  Agree on specifics around child care and domestic responsibilities.  Having the tough conversations before you get married will ensure short term pain and long term gain. If you are married and feel there is some inequality in the relationship, it’s time to sit down and have that tough conversation!  Go back to step one together, it’s never, never too late and it could very well save your marriage and your family.

Step 3A: Speak Up!

Dig deep and find the courage to ask for a promotion, an increase in pay. If you believe you are paid less than a male counterpart, hold your company accountable and ask for an explanation.  If you work for a company or boss who isn’t open to addressing gender inequality, quit, and find a company that is more supportive and make sure you tell them why you are leaving in your exit interview.  Do not work for an asshole (male or female) because they are now your road block to achieving your goals.  Terminate them from your life.

Step 3B: Mentorship

Find at least two female mentors whom you respect and who have achieved a level of success that can assist you in your goals.  Simply ask, “Can I buy you lunch or a glass of wine?”  From here, ask if they are willing to build a protégé/mentor relationship.  Women are generally very open to supporting other women, and this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have male mentors too.  I strongly believe this is an important element towards success.  It’s the cream in your coffee to a successful career path.

Step 3C: Read

Read, read and then read some more.  Find as many books as you can on the topics of professional success, from both women and men.  Make sure it’s well-rounded, and remember, you may not always agree with everything written, but you will garner something from it.  Read, read, and read some more!  Learn about professional and personal development. It’s a journey, not a destination and we should always be educating ourselves.  I’m always reading a book…books actually; one for entertainment and one for personal and professional development and I’ve been doing it for 30 years.

Step 3D: Help other women

Give back.  Mentor others.   It takes a village. It is vitally important towards making positive change in other people’s lives and very personally rewarding for us individually.  I’ve learned a great deal from the young women and men I’ve mentored over the years.

Also, check out the Canadian Women’s Foundation and find ways to support women in this country.

In closing, this is a real problem, not a figment of our imagination.  The numbers and facts don’t lie.  I clearly have encountered gender inequality throughout my life.  Starting with when I was young, I remember my father saying all feminists are just bra burning lesbians (hey, well, it was the late 70s).  However, he was also was the guy who encouraged me to be anything I wanted.  He said, “Kathy, you can grab the world by the balls, and you will need to because it is run by men.  Go do it, you have what it takes.”  I typically never sweat the small stuff and have learned to forge ahead.

People can be very judgmental and they’ll say stupid things, and I generally deal with this with a sense of humour.   However, when it is a large issue, I push back, throw it right back at them and hard. Of course this approach comes with some personal and professional risk.  Life is full of risks.  Garner the courage to ignore the risk.  This is an issue we have to fix today to pave the way for our daughters and our sons.  They all deserve to live in a world together with less conflict.  The only way we can make change is for us to work together: women and men, bosses, and parents to ensure we are creating an equitable life. We need to speak up, be passionate about change, and ensure our country is the very best at empowering women and girls.

Join me.

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