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Opinion

Women in business: let’s go beyond tokenism and the status quo

By Carol Stephenson      

Getting more women on boards requires leadership at the top. And we need to ensure women’s success isn’t compromised by a mid-career lag.

Authors Sheryl Sandberg, right, chief operating officer of Facebook, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, left, of the New America think-tank, have suggested women need to be encouraged to identify and eliminate bad habits that hold them back. In other instances, it's men who need to be educated to assess women objectively, writes ex-business school dean Carol Stephenson. Photographs courtesy of New America and Financial Times/Drew Altizer
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In 1996, my first formal speech on women in business described the “female model of leadership,” and here we are still debating the same topic in 2017.

Canada was one of the first signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in the early 1980s, and gender equality is one of the most overwhelmingly favoured and non-controversial of Canadian values today. Yet, we know that despite their capability in business and as entrepreneurs, women continue to face institutional, sociological, and cultural barriers that makes their ascent strenuous and difficult.

During my tenure as the dean of Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ont., I spent a lot of my energy encouraging our female students to strive for successful careers in business and guiding them on how to remove any barriers they may encounter. The challenges preventing gender equality have been part of my personal experience. I’ve been fortunate to have mentors, friends, and family who helped pave the way for my success.

While there has been progress made on the number of women on boards, there is still potential for increasing diversity on boards. Most boards on which I serve actively discuss and plan for more diversity in their future membership. Many organizations have been formed to enable this progress. I have been involved in several, and it is clear that leadership from the top from both CEOs and board chairs is essential.

Circumspection needs to be the watchword when we gauge success for women. We need to do a better job of tracking women across their career cycle. While women’s collective achievements outpace men in the first three decades of life, we notice a lag mid-career due to various complex factors. A lot more work needs to be done to ensure that this drop-off is addressed. At General Motors, where I serve as a director, the company conducted a very successful pilot program called “Take 2” that enables GM women to re-enter the workforce after a mid-career break. It is now being implemented globally.

We also need to address the cultural stigma that many women face while pursuing success in their careers. As others such as Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter have chronicled, women need to be encouraged to identify and eliminate bad habits that hold them back. In other instances, it is men who need to be educated to assess women objectively. Take, for instance, the dynamic entrepreneurial energy in the start-up space. Too often, with access to capital being controlled by men, women have been shallowly dismissed as risk-averse. As a recent study has highlighted, a closer look indicated that women were more inclined to build business that endured and provided a lasting value to their community. In the long run, having a wider perspective might help us to assess businesses not just on scalability, but also on their sustainability.

I think it is crucial to discuss this topic at meetings such as this week’s SHAPE North American conference being co-hosted by both Toronto and Ottawa by the brightest under-35 cohort across the continent. I am impressed by the progressive culture fostered by the leadership team, including chair Arjun Gupta, who is ensuring this topic is directly and substantively addressed, absent platitudes.

In mid-May, the first class of women graduated from United States Army infantry training, an occurrence unique in the more than two centuries of that organization. The New York Times reports that, “To the pound, men and women lug the same rucksacks, throw the same grenades, and shoulder the same machine guns.” These women quietly broke down barriers, and I hope that future generations of women can live in a world where accomplishments such as these are no longer remarkable and miraculous but normal and commonplace. This is what it looks like to move beyond tokenism and the status quo.

Carol Stephenson is an officer of the Order of Canada and is the former dean of the Ivey School of Business at Western University in London, Ont. She is a director of the board of General Motors.

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