This International Women's Day, I am reflecting on how we can continue to foster women in leadership, both here in Canada and across the globe. In many ways, I believe authenticity plays a big part. As women, are we given the opportunity to show up to work every day as our true authentic selves? Or do subtle — and not so subtle — gender stereotypes cause us to compartmentalize a "work self" and a "home self?"
Never has being a woman been as discussed as it is today across the many different platforms that we all have access to. It's truly a fascinating time to live through. For me, I left school at an early age, without any post-secondary education. I needed to work in order to pay rent, so going to college was not an option for me. When I started my career in the automotive industry, it was very uncommon for a woman to be in a leadership position and this still remains the norm across many other industries. In fact, in Canada, men are still two to three times more likely to be a senior management position than women. It has been reported that only 8.5 per cent of Canada's top jobs are held by women.
When I left work to have my daughter, it was assumed that I would not be returning to the workplace at least until my daughter was at school — after all, how would it be possible to work while trying to be a good mother? And then when I did return to work, it was often frowned upon when I needed to miss a meeting or work trip in favour of a school commitment. In the early days before I felt comfortable speaking up for myself, I often missed out on those key family events for fear of being negatively compared to some of the men in my organization.
Working on a team of all men, I was not the only parent, but I was the only working mom.
I remember one instance when my daughter had a health appointment — nothing serious, but it was important for me to be there. I was asked quite last minute by work to go meet a client in Amsterdam. Based on the flight timing, it would be touch and go for me to make the appointment. That day there was a massive snowstorm, my flight was delayed and I completely missed the appointment. While these things can happen, I remember feeling distraught and completely alienated from my colleagues. I'd felt this invisible pressure to stay silent about the appointment in the first place and I had no one to talk to. Working on a team of all men, I was not the only parent, but I was the only working mom.
In this particular work environment, presence — as in the number of hours worked — equaled doing a good job. So while my results were strong and often better than my colleagues, I faced a feeling of inadequacy on a daily basis when I was the only one to leave the office at 5 p.m. Today, I still strongly believe in quality of work over who stays in the office longest.
One day, my boss pulled me aside because my expenses were too low. In my dual role of customer relations and sales, entertaining clients was the norm. My boss and male colleagues would be out with clients four times a week or more and they genuinely enjoyed it. I limited how much I entertained as I needed and wanted to be home to spend time with my daughter. I worked hard, I was efficient and my performance stayed strong. Ultimately I was spending less company money to achieve the same or better results. And yet, I was criticized. Anything different was something to be concerned about instead of something to be embraced. I often felt I had to do twice as good of a job to be considered level with the men in my organization.
While this type of company dynamic is not a relic of the past by any means, I eventually moved on. It was incredibly refreshing to find new work environments where equality was embraced. As a woman, I didn't need to uphold a certain persona at work like I had in the past. It really clicked for me then that I could be my authentic self, which in turn allowed me to continue to grow as a leader.
Not only is gender diversity better for society, it's also better for business.
The opportunity to be your authentic self — whether it's as a woman, a mother or a wife — fosters a more positive and trustworthy workplace, and more meaningful work output. Ultimately, not only is gender diversity better for society, it's also better for business. I see women around me who blossom when given the freedom to focus on being a good mom or partner, alongside their careers. Their energy in the workplace is focused entirely on the job at hand with no wasted energy spent "pretending" or creating fictitious "good at everything" characters that society expects them to be.
The importance of authenticity and openness at work extends far past gender identity to one's ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, religion and more. Every day we all make small decisions that can lead to overall inclusiveness or exclusion in the workplace. And I believe we all have a responsibility to consider the ways in which we can support each other — both women and men — to be authentic leaders.
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There are still days when I struggle with juggling my career and being a mom. I don't think that I have all of the answers today, but I know I've had the opportunity to thrive when given the opportunity to be my authentic self: a down-to-earth, hardworking, socially interested, but definitely imperfect wife, mother and colleague who is still learning every day. I have realized that sharing some of my own challenges has encouraged others, especially other women, to share theirs, too. Together, we can always find a solution.
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