Creating an environment that engages women

This was originally written by me and published on another blog on January 6, 2015. Given some of the posts I have planned and some other projects that are in the works, it is relevant to revisit it.


Over the last six months or so, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know some of the members of the local JCI branch. Just before the holidays, I received an invitation to speak to JCI St. Catharines about creating an environment that engages women.

Here’s what I said (it’s long, so sit back and relax while you read it):

Speaking Notes

JCI Meeting – January 6, 2015

I’m pleased to be here this evening to speak to you about creating an atmosphere that engages women. Thank you to Andrew for inviting me and congratulations to Marcie for being the first woman to be elected president of JCI St. Catharines.

I understand from Andrew that 2015 is JCI’s 79th year in St. Catharines and not only that this is the first year that a woman has been elected president but that in St. Catharines, only 25% of members are women. What I find interesting, though, is that nationwide, more than half of JCI members are women, that your 2015 board is balanced between women and men, and that you are seeing increased interest in JCI from women, especially in leadership positions, which is wonderful, because – from what I could find on-line – it appears you didn’t begin to have female board members until just 15 years ago.

When it comes to speaking about creating an environment that engages women, which I’ve done a few times, I invariably say some things that are unpopular. I hope that if or when I say something you don’t like, you will suspend judgment and continue to listen to what I have to say, because it’s what makes us uncomfortable that makes us think differently.

Let me tell you a little bit of my own story first.

Among other things, I’ve been teaching in Niagara College’s Continuing Education department for 15 years. In 2005, my development officer approached me about creating a Leadership for Women course.

I said no.

I said that I didn’t think it was particularly relevant; that sexism in the workplace wasn’t THAT MUCH of an issue anymore. That’s right. A woman who, now, unapologetically identifies as a feminist said she didn’t think sexism was THAT MUCH of a problem.

I was 29.

I had taken much of what I had dealt with in the workplace to be related more to my age than anything else. At each workplace since I’d graduated from college, I quickly earned my way into a more senior position than the one for which I was originally hired. I was surpassing people who were older than I was; people who felt strongly that experience counted more than knowledge and work ethic, but my superiors were also still 15 and 20 years older than I was. They were also mostly men.

My development officer asked me to do some research about women in leadership roles and get back to her. She also told me that several women I had already taught in other management courses had requested a course like this.

So, I started reading.

Slowly, I realized that what I was reading was telling me that the challenges I’d been encountering in the workplace had less to do with my age than they had to do with my gender.

At the very least, it was a combination of the two.

My ideas not being entertained or even heard when I was often the only woman at the table.

Being sought out for my advice and then learning that that individual didn’t like what I suggested – even though it often turned out to be the correct advice – so went and sought out advice from others who didn’t have the same expertise.

Being interrupted or talked over in meetings.

Being questioned or challenged what seemed like more than others when I stated an opinion or made a suggestion.

The list goes on.

These were all things that were coming up in my research that were more likely to happen to women than men in workplace and other settings.

In running for city council three times, I’ve had some things asked of me and said to me that I am certain are not being asked of or said to my male counterparts. I’ve heard comments about my appearance; I’ve encountered questions about my family status; and more than any other question I was asked, I got “Do you have time for this…as a mom?”

I also started paying a lot more attention to various classroom dynamics and noticing that women were, in fact, much quieter than men in these settings; that – even in classroom settings – men were more likely to interrupt or argue with women than they were with other men; that women were far more likely to apologize to me for asking questions or requesting assistance with a concept or problem; and that the more women there were in a classroom, the more likely women were to speak up when I posed a question to the entire class. Let’s remember, we’re talking about Continuing Education. These are students who are typically in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.

As far as business and politics go, I have some data to share with you that is both promising and troubling. Promising because we really have made significant strides. Troubling because the numbers are still so low or because we’ve stagnated – or both.

From Equal Voice, which is an organization that has the mandate of promoting the election of women to achieve more balance in politics: While women have made many gains in the political realm over the past twenty years, progress has been slow. From about 1993 until 2011, the numbers of women elected to the House of Commons hovered around the 20% mark. In the last federal election in May of 2011, we celebrated a new record when 24.6% or 76 women in total, were elected to the House of Commons. Women are more than 50% of Canada’s population and currently comprise an average of 25% of Canada’s municipal councils, provincial legislatures, and the House of Commons.

As of November 2014, Canada’s international ranking on women’s political representation is 53rd. Canada still has fewer women elected than most of Europe, parts of Africa, Australia, and Iraq.

Polling data consistently demonstrates women care about different issues. The United Nations has emphasized that equality in decision-making is essential to the empowerment of women, noting a critical mass is needed before legislatures produce public policy representing women’s concerns.

Around Niagara, women are not well-represented on our municipal councils, with only 2 of 13 seats being held by women in St. Catharines and Welland; 2 of 9 seats in Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake; 3 of 9 seats in Grimsby, Lincoln, and Port Colborne; 2 of 7 seats in Fort Erie; 1 of 7 seats in Pelham and West Lincoln; 2 of 5 seats in Wainfleet; and 0 of 9 seats in Thorold. Across 12 municipalities, we have two female mayors, and only four members of our Regional Council are women – two of them being the mayors of Lincoln and Wainfleet. In this last municipal election, the best representation of women we were able to achieve was 40%, which was in Wainfleet on a five-member municipal council. Overall, women in Niagara hold only 20% of political offices.

In business, according to data from Catalyst, women hold 5.3% of CEO positions across Fortune 1000 companies. Of note, though, is that across the top 100 of those companies, 9% of CEOs are women. As far as Executive Officer positions go across Fortune 500 companies, the percentage of positions held by women has remained stagnant at around 14% for the last five years.

According to a 2007 study – not the only one of its kind that I’ve come across – Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average, than those with the lowest representation of women board directors. To avoid confusion in what I’m saying here, the study does not say that boards with a majority of women necessarily excel, it’s saying that those boards that have higher representations of women than other boards have excelled.

The report found higher financial performance for companies with higher representation of women board directors in three important measures:

  • Return on Equity: On average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 53 percent;
  • Return on Sales: On average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 42 percent; and
  • Return on Invested Capital: On average, companies with the highest percentages of women board directors outperformed those with the least by 66 percent.

The correlation between gender diversity on boards and corporate performance can also be found across most industries—from consumer discretionary to information technology.

And finally – as far as data I’m going to talk about goes – the gender wage gap – even with all of its detractors – is a real thing. The most recent Statistics Canada data (from 2011) shows that the gender wage gap in Ontario is 26% for full-time, full-year workers in the private sector and 18% in the public sector. This means that for every $1.00 earned by a male worker in the private sector, a female worker earns $0.74. In the public sector, for every $1.00 a male worker earns, a female worker earns $0.82. These numbers drop for female workers who are not White.

The gender wage gap is caused by many factors, such as:

  • women choosing or needing to leave and re-enter the workforce in order to meet family care-giving responsibilities, resulting in a loss of seniority, advancement opportunities and wages;
  • occupational segregation in historically undervalued and low-paying jobs, such as childcare, retail, service industry, and clerical work;
  • traditionally lower levels of education (although this is becoming less of a factor as higher numbers of women graduate from all levels of education);
  • less unionization amongst female workers; and
  • discrimination in hiring, promotion and compensation practices in the workplace.

Much of this, of course, started when we were children. It starts in the school system. The following are well-researched truths:

  • girls learn very early to defer to boys in the classroom;
  • boys are still more likely than girls to be encouraged to pursue math, science, and technology (though we have made significant strides here as well); and
  • this is true of all people, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, ability, etc. – when we see ourselves represented, we are more likely to believe we can accomplish or be a part of something.

I think it’s this last point that is imperative to understand.

When we see ourselves represented, we are more likely to believe we can accomplish or be a part of something.

Keeping in mind that, again, this is really true for all people, but that I’ve been asked to speak about creating an environment that engages women, women are not likely to pursue a particular career, get involved in politics at any level, join a particular organization, or get involved in a particular sport when they don’t see themselves well-represented.

Women are not likely to feel they can achieve leadership positions in any of these realms if they don’t see themselves well-represented.

So, here I am. A woman who has been teaching leadership, management and other courses for 15 years; a woman who has run for municipal council three times and advocated strongly for balance at the council table during each campaign; a woman who served on municipal council for a year; a woman who likes to think of herself – if not as a community leader – then at least as a woman who is making a difference in her community; and a woman who is a boxer.

And when I am asked about creating an atmosphere that engages women, I am certain there is not a single right answer to this question. There are several ways to foster diversity and ensure that women feel included. So, in addition to having my own thoughts on this, I reached out to friends and colleagues, including Cowork Niagara, Small Web Strategies, Startup Niagara, and other educators and business owners.

The one point that repeatedly came up and is also something that I’ve long advocated for is communication. Everyone has to feel that their contributions will be heard and valued. This never means that you will act on every single thing that someone contributes. It means that everyone knows they can speak with their colleagues and managers about challenges they are facing or opportunities they see, and they will not be judged or intimidated for doing so. Having a policy or other mechanisms in place to ensure that everyone is heard, whether that’s in meetings or through other channels, is always a good policy.

Another point that – depending on your perspective – could seem obvious or like overkill is to be cognizant of the messages you’re sending and how you’re sending them. What are you saying, how are you saying it, who’s listening, and how might it affect the listener? If you have staff members who are making derogatory remarks about women, that’s going to make women feel uncomfortable, undervalued, and maybe even intimidated.

I had the experience of working for a place where I was the only woman. As I sat in my office one afternoon, I heard the guys talking about their wives and girlfriends in a way that made me very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that I just sat there. I wanted to go out into the common area and remind them that I was there, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. As our VP walked past my office to go to his, I said his name. He looked at me, his jaw dropped, and he immediately apologized. To his credit, conversations like the one I’d overheard never happened again.

In another instance, an organization that I belong to was planning a social event. One of the participants posted a picture of a woman who was barely dressed. Without being asked, the organizer – who is a man – immediately contacted him and told him that it was likely to make the female participants uncomfortable and asked him to remove it.

In speaking with other women who had seen the post, we agreed that it did make us feel uncomfortable and that we likely would not have attended had the post and the individual not been addressed. It may seem like harmless fun or like people are being oversensitive, but – unless you’ve experienced it (and the vast majority of white males will not have experienced it) – it’s really difficult to explain the impact that it can have on whether or not someone feels valued, respected, safe, and supported.

As I mentioned earlier, there are tangible benefits to engaging women in your organization, and this goes for all diversity. Having the ability to seek out and learn from several different perspectives on the same issue can only be a benefit. Ensure that your marketing materials, your website, your stated values, and so on all reflect your commitment to diversity.

I really struggled with whether I was going to discuss this or not, because I’m sure it has far more to do with history, JCI being a volunteer organization, and with annual leadership turnover than anything else, but when I visited the JCI website, for instance, to learn more about your organization, I came across the guiding principles. In six short sentences, the words “brotherhood” and “man” are each used once, and the word “men” is used twice. There is no mention of women. If I was not already aware of who some of your members are and what you do, I might easily think that this was an organization only for men. Again, this is true of all kinds of diversity. The more we see ourselves represented, the more we’ll imagine that we can be involved in or achieve something.

There are two more things that I want to talk about tonight with respect to engaging women into leadership roles. The first is ensuring that we are not neglecting to acknowledge the skills that women acquire outside of the workplace. As I mentioned earlier, one of the reasons for the gender wage gap is due to women leaving the workforce due to family choices and responsibilities. While we do allow men to take parental leave now as well, there are still far more women taking it for two main reasons: one, the male is earning more and it doesn’t make financial sense for him to take parental leave; and two, many men who consider taking parental leave face criticism and stigma from their employers and colleagues, because “it’s not the man’s role.”

So, while women are taking temporary absences from the workforce – most short-term, but some longer term – it’s important to recognize that they are still acquiring and using skills during this time. Think about time management, organization, planning, in some cases – crisis management, and, yes, absolutely leadership skills. Further, generally speaking, women don’t lose the skills and knowledge they possessed prior to taking a leave from the workforce. If we lean more toward treating our staff like whole people, learning about what they can do and have done outside of specific education and formal workplace experience, we end up with staff who have more well-rounded skill sets than what education and formal work experience can provide.

And the second thing that I wanted to talk about is mentorship. As with everything else, we’ve made great strides in this area, but women are still far less likely than men to have mentors. Again, this is a researched truth. Many articles point to the reason being that when we consider taking someone under our wing to show them the ropes, so to speak, we look for someone who we see a bit of ourselves in; someone who reminds us of ourselves in some way. Of course, if this is how mentors are typically drawn to those they will mentor and we still have a significantly larger proportion of men than women in leadership roles, then it is the men who are most likely to end up being mentored. Generally speaking, it is far easier to find something that reminds us of ourselves in someone of the same gender. So, try to find women you can mentor. Encourage the men you know who are in leadership positions to mentor your female colleagues who you think show real promise. And do things like I’ve had three male students do…attend seminars and courses about women in leadership. Now, admittedly, this presents some challenges, as men are often shut out from attending these seminars and courses, and there are some legitimate reasons for this; however, I’ve had three different men attend my Leadership for Women course, all for very similar reasons – if they were going to groom women for leadership roles and there was something different about women in leadership, then they wanted to learn what it was, so they could help in the best possible way. And ladies, when you see a female colleague – maybe she’s in your workplace, maybe you’ve met her through some industry function, maybe she’s a family friend – who shows promise, bring her along with you. Show her the ropes. Share your experiences with her. Tell her how you’ve gotten where you are and what you may or may not have done differently. And having the opportunity to have another woman mentor us also goes back to feeling like we can achieve particular goals because we see ourselves represented.

Again, none of what I’ve suggested is a definitive way to create an environment that engages women. There are so many ways to do this, and – of course – just as various workplace environments and perks appeal to different men, the same is true of women. One thing is for certain, though, the idea that women’s equality in the workplace is about treating them like men is incorrect. I don’t know of any woman anywhere who has genuinely suggested that to attain equality in the workplace she wanted to be treated like a man. Equity is a much better word for it.


In encouraging any kind of diversity in the workplace, our volunteer organizations, in sport, and just in life generally, we can’t expect that treating every individual person in exactly the same manner will mean they can achieve the same things. In many cases we do this already, maybe without realizing it, but we have to ensure that everyone has all of the tools they need in order to have the opportunity to achieve their goals.