Women Leaders and Gender Diversity in the Workplace

By Angela Altass

When we think of women in leadership, there are often key names of influential women who come to mind, but how are things for women in the workplace overall in Canada? Women continue to face biases and barriers to advancement in the workplace because of their gender, says the McKinsey & Company 2019 report Women Matter: The Present and Future of Women at Work in Canada.

“There are many examples of women who have impacted the world through their leadership,” notes Wendy Kadlovski, director of operations, Nicholby’s. “However, we must not forget that we all make a difference through our leadership each and every day and we are changing the world too.”

 

Kadlovski’s role with Nicholby’s is to oversee operations. She started her career working in the oil industry where there were not many women in key roles, especially in sales and territory management. She says that over time she has seen a massive change in the industry with more women working in these roles.

“The convenience sector has evolved as well,” says Kadlovski. “We see more women in pivotal positions impacting the convenience channel from both a vendor and operator perspective. Given that 99 per cent of our staff are women, I work every day to coach and train our team members on general business practices and leadership hoping to make a difference through education,” says Kadlovski. “I am involved in the convenience industry through a long-standing commitment to the board of the Ontario Convenience Store Association where I have served as chair and currently have the role of treasurer.”

 

Kadlovski advises those who aspire to take on leadership positions within their industries to undertake active training.

“We are not all born leaders,” she states, “these are skills that can be learned. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to have excellent fundamental leadership training early in my career. At the end of the day, being a woman should not preclude any career opportunities. I believe it should always be the best person for the job.”

 

Jessica Friesen, owner-operator of Gales Gas Bars in the Niagara region of Ontario, agrees that grasping opportunities to learn is a key to success.

“It takes years to learn a job, an organization, an industry,” says Friesen, who notes there are more women in leadership roles within the convenience industry than a decade ago. “For me, leadership is about equality. Men and women both deserve to be in leadership positions.”

 

In the carwash industry, a conference has been established to assist women in providing a place to learn and gather industry-specific knowledge. The inaugural Women in Carwash Conference was held last year in Niagara Falls, Canada, followed by a second conference that took place in January 2020 in Arlington, Texas.

“The conference provides all women working within the carwashing industry, not only those in leadership roles, with an event and a venue where they can meet like-minded individuals with whom they can talk, laugh, commiserate and grow,” says conference co-founder Brenda Johnstone. “We offer educational sessions that encompass real-life challenges that range from employee conflict resolution to stress management and general interest sessions that inspire everyone to be and do better.”

 

Johnstone senses a shift toward gender diversity within the industry.

“There is still a long row to hoe, but there has been a shift, partly due to old-school managers leaving the industry,” she says. “The younger generation is much more accepting of women in the workforce and women in management positions.”

 

Creation of the Women in Carwash conference was formed from Johnstone’s personal experiences.

“I have been that woman in a large room full of mostly men and I’ve had a question but was not comfortable standing up in that room and asking a question that the men probably already knew the answer to, but, damn it, I wanted to know too,” she states. “Sadly, in my opinion, some of the organizers of conferences haven’t been keeping up with the changes in demographics and women have been left to either keep quiet or find another option to learn. I asked many women if they wanted a specific conference for women and was overwhelming surprised at the response, which led to the Women in Carwash conference being born.”

 

For women looking for leadership programs, the Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario offers Women in Leadership: Empowering Women Leaders. In the program, women leaders learn together about personal leadership effectiveness and leading strategically to implement bold visions. Attendees work with a coach who helps them to experiment with different leadership behaviours. Designed for women pursuing director, vice president, or other senior roles, the program explores insights and the latest research about gender, diversity, inclusion and other implications for leadership. For further information visit www.IveyAcademy.ca

 

The McKinsey report notes that there is a need for organizations to offer more support to help men and women juggle family and work commitments. Women are more likely to experience what is known as double burden syndrome – the need to balance work and domestic responsibilities. Although 36 per cent of the women surveyed by McKinsey had partners, they said they were responsible for most or all of the housework and childcare, compared to eight per cent of men. Coupled with an anytime, anywhere performance model, this makes it more difficult for women to advance to leadership positions, says the report.

“If someone offers to help, remember that and take them up on it when necessary because you are not going to be able to do it all,” says Friesen. “Trying to be the perfect mom, perfect business woman, perfect community ambassador, etc. is very exhausting and eventually something always cracks.”

 

The McKinsey report states that women are well represented in seven of the top 10 occupations that could see high net job growth. However, women still hold slightly fewer than half of the managerial and executive positions and a talent pipeline survey showed women made up approximately 20 per cent of senior leadership positions in the retail sector.

“Women experience everyday microaggressions, which become more prevalent as they move up the ranks,” states the report. “A manifestation of prejudice, gender microagressions can range from subtle to overt workplace discrimination. They are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative sexist slights and insults toward women. They can appear in facial expressions, body language, terminology, representation, or remarks.”

 

The report explains that microaggressions differ from other forms of sexism in that the offenders’ intentions may be good, or their biases unconscious, or they view their actions as harmless.

“Whether intentional or unintentional, these incidents or interactions that seem harmless on the surface have a negative cumulative impact on recipients, significantly affecting their everyday experience and reflecting the gender inequalities in the workplace,” says the report. “Our survey found that women at all levels are more likely to experience microaggressions than men, and the relative difference between men and women increases as women become more senior. Women at the senior manager, director and vice president levels are four to five times more likely than men to need to provide more evidence of their competence.’

Women are 76 per cent as likely as men to be promoted to manager and even less likely, at 64 per cent, to be promoted to vice president, says the McKinsey report. Women only make up 43 per cent of external hires at the manager level and 34 per cent at the vice president level. Women at the senior levels have fewer sponsors than men and their sponsors are mostly other women.

“Sponsors play an important role in an employee’s career development and are critical to their advancement because they proactively help their protégés advance,” says the report. “Our study shows that the more senior the employee, the more likely they are to have at least one sponsor.”

 

Mentoring is very important and women should actively support and encourage one another, says Kadlovski.

“I have found during my career that mentors do not always have to be women,” she adds. “There are many men who are amazing mentors as well. It is important to find someone with whom you can relate in your industry when choosing a mentor.”

Lesya Balych-Cooper, who has been the president and CEO of the Coffee Association of Canada for the past six years, believes in supporting and encouraging others and she advises young aspiring leaders to be honest with themselves about their personal interests and values.

“Find out specifically what it is that you love,” she says. “Regularly engage in analyzing your performances, successes and failures. Leadership is defined by your resilience. It’s not just about titles and money. You need to be able to look back and see whether you grew and learned from your experiences, even if they didn’t turn out to be as successful as you had hoped.”

 

Indeed, becoming a strong influential leader within any industry might be as much about intent, talent, drive and education as it is about gender.

“I don’t feel that promoting women to meet gender guidelines is something that any company should do,” notes Johnstone. “That would breed resentment. Encouraging, educating and supporting both men and women will do a better job of creating more women leaders through equal competition.”

 

During the recent virtual conference of the Coffee Association of Canada, Diane Olsen, president and founder of Balzac’s Coffee Ltd. said she didn’t think of herself as a woman in the coffee business.

“I had confidence and wanted to try something that brought joy to my life – something that I loved,” she remarks. “It started as a small business with a roaster and a kiosk. Seventy per cent of our employees are women but that wasn’t done intentionally.”

 

Small and medium sized enterprises were noted in the McKinsey study to have a higher representation of women throughout the talent pipeline. On average, women’s representation at each level in organizations with fewer than 500 employees is six percentage points higher than that of larger ones.

Commitment to gender equality is strong among Canadian organizations with four in five of them reporting that gender diversity is a top or very important priority but less than 60 per cent of employees think their organization is doing what it takes to improve gender diversity, says the McKinsey report.

“Ultimately, more needs to be done to close the gap on gender representation and improve the workplace experience for women,” states the report. “We need to admit that the playing field for women in Canada is still uneven, that barriers to advancement still exist, and that women still face subtle and, sometimes overt, discrimination.”