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Women and leadership: How to overcome roadblocks

Canadian businesswomen weigh in on what it took to rise to the top in their careers

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young business woman seeking advice from mature business woman within a boardroomMentorship is necessary for anyone on the road to leadership. Women on this journey should look to female superiors with parallel experiences to guide, share and support, say experts. (Getty Images/Jasmin Merdan)

Hiring women may boost business returns, according to new research, but a woman’s journey to the C-suite isn’t as straight-forward as it is for a man, another survey says.

A report from Morgan Stanley found that, globally, businesses with the highest proportion of female hires had annual returns 2.8 per cent higher over the past eight years than less diverse firms. The report looked at the percentage of women employed at approximately 2,000 companies from the MCI World index. 

Meanwhile, according to the KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit Report, which surveyed 550 executive women, 66 per cent of respondents said they had to change their leadership styles more than males, while 81 per cent said they have to be more adaptable than men to lead successfully and advance in their careers. The report, Advancing the Future of Women in Business, set out to gain insights into how the leadership styles of C-suite-bound female executives impact their decision-making, career advancement and motivational abilities.

“I think the big ‘aha’ confirmation for me was that women identify with the fact that they have to change their leadership style to suit the situation,” says Mary Lou Maher, KPMG Canada’s managing partner of risk management and global head of inclusion and diversity. “There is situational leadership that goes on, which doesn’t surprise me. I had to do it in my own career. We are making progress as you see in corporate Canada, but it’s been a journey.”

We asked three Canadian businesswomen—selected based on their roles, years as leaders and experience as CPAs or in the financial services industry—to weigh in on their own leadership journeys. Here is what Anne-Marie Hubert (east market segment managing partner at Ernst and Young Canada), Loren Francis (vice-president and principal at Highview Financial Group) and Eva Wong (co-founder and chief operating officer at Canadian fintech company, Borrowell) had to say.

OVERCOMING HURDLES

Though their careers launched more than 10 years apart, both Francis and Wong believe the hurdles they faced were greater than those their male counterparts faced. 

“Earlier in my career—being young, Asian, female and inexperienced—I felt like I wasn't taken as seriously,” Wong says. “I probably looked even younger than my age, so I think I had to work harder to get the same respect that my [male] colleagues got.” 

Francis agrees: “In the beginning stages, you’ve got to prove your work ethic and abilities first,” she says. “You’ve got to show you are capable. Then you can start to really add value and move onto the next stepping stone of your career.”

But while Francis mostly felt welcomed inside the world of investment bankingshe recalls her transition to more senior roles was not without obstacles 

“That’s where you start to feel you are really being compared to your cohorts and there are some major differences between how men and women work,” Francis says.   

This could be because our “cultural” notion of leadership impacts the way we perceive men and women, explains Michele Bowring, associate professor of leadership and organization in the department of management at the University of Guelph.

“Often, our ideas of how leaders should behave are much more connected to our ideas generally in our culture of how men should behave,” Bowring says. “We expect leaders to be action-oriented [and] assertive, [to] make decision[s] and get things done. We expect women to be nurturing and caring.” 

MAKING TOUGH DECISIONS

Hubert—a recipient of the Order of Canada who has been recognized and awarded for her work in gender equity and mentorship in the workplace—views herself as an inclusive leader who keeps communication open with her teams. Despite this, she recalls times when tough decisions she made backfired, negatively impacting how others perceived her. 

“It’s not expected that we [women] will make tough decisions,” she says. “If you are a man and you make tough decisions, you’re a leader. [But] if you are a woman ... you better make sure you consult and it’s clear that you were not alone making the decision.”

Hubert recommends female leaders engage with their teams and ask for feedback during the decision-making , while remaining confident in their positions. 

“I did not change anything. I just communicated differently,” she says. “It’s not a bad adjustment, actually. When you make decisions that impact the lives of people, you should do it right, and you’re more likely to do it right if you talk a little more [with others].”   

FINDING SUPPORT

Guidance from others plays a huge role in anyone’s leadership journey, Hubert says, adding that it’s important to have both sponsors and mentors. 

“A mentor talks to you; a sponsor talks about you,” Hubert says. “You need to have sponsors who talk positively about you to get you somewhere…[whereas] you need a collage approach to mentorship because you really benefit from the experience and wisdom of a number of people around you.”

Francis agrees. If you are seeking a mentor or a sponsor, find women who share parallel experiences, such as being the only woman in a boardroom, she advises. But also collaborate with male leaders you respect, she adds. “You have to find men who are relatable and who have the ability to listen without bias.” 

PLANNING AHEAD

Women tend to find individual ways to cope and continue on in their leadership journeys, regardless of the industry they enter, roles they pursue, or pushback they encounter, says Bowring. 

“Every woman seems to find her own way in navigating this and finds a place where she is comfortable with navigating both sides: the seeming masculinity of what we expect from leaders, and the seemingly femininity that is expected from her,” she says.

“I think for a lot of women, they look to the outside world…to value who they are,” Francis says. “You have to look inward…step outside of your comfort zone, and say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and just go for it.” 

And this is exactly what she did: when Francis came to a point in her career when she wanted more work-life balance (which coincided with starting her family), she switched directions.

Moving into wealth management, and eventually joining a smaller independent firm, allowed her more freedom to serve clients, guide staff and collaborate with her executive team. “What I was seeking, and where I am at today, is to have ownership, and to have a voice at the table,” she says.

For Wong, aligning her career with her values, beliefs and business acumen was important.

“I haven’t felt like I’ve needed to adapt to fit into the corporate culture at Borrowell,” she says of the financial technology company she founded with her partner five years ago. “I feel like I can be fully who I am, and lead in the way that is most authentic to me. I hope that’s true for others as well—not just because I’m a senior leader here.” 

For those looking to do the same in their careers, Wong suggests you determine what you want from your career overall, your job and your life outside of the office, and align that with your work environment.

“Think about it less like a [corporate] ladder and focus more on learning and how you can continue to grow and develop skills that you're excited to use,” she says. “I think that approach is most likely to lead to great things.”

TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR CAREER

Redefine your career path, set new goals and heed advice from your contemporaries at the 2019 AICPA women’s global leadership summit in San Diego, November 6-9.