Female entrepreneurs own the majority of about 16 per cent of small and medium enterprises in Canada, while 20 per cent share equal partnership with male owners. Women also currently hold only 14.5 per cent of all board seats among companies listed on the TSX, commercial real estate included. According to a recent Osler Hoskin and Harcourt LLP report, most of these companies refuse to adopt targets for gender parity, deeming them too restrictive or not resulting in the best candidates being selected.
But in industries rife with gender stereotypes, assumptions about women often cloud the decision-making that goes into choosing leaders. Sometimes, the best candidate is unknowingly perceived to be someone who reflects male gender norms in workplaces that were originally created by men for men. Women are now finding success in associations and professions that once ostracized them, but it’s not enough.
Let’s now look at those really subconscious things that need to change, says Jessica Weisz, chief operating officer of Soapbox, speaking during a recent Aird & Berlis LLP webinar on women in business. Webinar participants discussed overcoming gender stereotypes and social constructs in leadership.
Assumptions in the workplace
Assumptions in the workplace are one of the biggest challenges, Ellen Swan, corporate counsel for Home Depot Canada, has faced throughout her career.
There are assumptions of skills that are considered feminine and that success is achieved by embodying masculine skills. There are also assumptions about personality and what that says about a woman’s ability.
The webinar listed some traits normally associated with men and women. Male traits are assumed to include control, strength, competitiveness, toughness, coolness and logic, whereas female traits are assumed to be co-operation, mutuality, empathy, sharing and caring.
In her own litigation practice over the years, Swan has tried not to underestimate individuals by making assumptions about their skills. It isn’t the difference in skills that is dangerous, she says; it is the assumption of what those skills are.
“You have to be very mindful as a woman not to let someone else define what success looks like and define what your skills are,” she says. “Women in the workplace face particular assumptions about how they present themselves — how we dress, what we look like and what that says about our skills, our talents and our ability to get the job done.”
One of the greatest assumptions people make about women is motherhood, she adds, both in a woman’s desire to be a mother, how she prioritizes that role and what that means about her time management and commitment to leadership tracks and general workload. Often, working mothers have to demonstrate commitment to their jobs. Often, it is assumed that new fathers will return to their jobs, whereas women are more confronted with this question.
“Women have to battle up against these assumptions all the time and demonstrate their commitments in an active way,” she says. “The biggest expectation I put on myself as a mother is efficiency. Women who have children are expected to be very, very efficient and we demand that of ourselves.”
Gender constructs often take precedence over the work a woman produces. In Weisz’ career, she has observed that you can’t be too female, but not quite male, and that there’s often emphasis on her presentation as a woman. Being told to be less emotional or “less of a cheerleader” in order to be taken seriously, means stripping away what feels so natural for her, stopping her from being her authentic self.
At women’s leadership conferences there is encouragement to bring out what may not feel natural and suppress what does feel natural, and the training often focuses on being assertive and taking more action.
“But I’ve been told when I’m assertive, I can seem like a bulldozer,” she says, adding that the training should be more about communicating appropriately, getting the job done and engaging your team.
For Paris Honoria, trans program officer at Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, the expectations of leadership change when a leader is trans, because trans women have to act in stereotypical, feminine ways to be seen as legitimate.
“On the other hand, if you fail to perform that level of feminine expression, people use that to suggest that maybe you’re really a man and should be treated like a fraud, or you’re untrustworthy,” she says. “And what tends to happen when you trans identify, is that people see you as possessing less social power and being less human, less able to fight back.”
Higher levels of harassment and blame in the workplace can ensue, directly or indirectly, even without the perpetrators’ awareness of their actions.
“When we speak about the difficulty of becoming a trans leader, organizations and workplaces love to use trans activists and employees to take the lead on diversity and inclusion work, and then turn them down for positions in leadership.”
Similar to how women are perceived in the workplace, in terms of what they wear, trans people can also feel disempowered when comments and questions turn to their appearance and gender rather than the work they are doing. In leadership positions, their bodies can become “sites of spectacle.”
Creating space to thrive
Creating a space where people can thrive and feel authentic as individuals means looking beyond gender and redefining what is valuable in the workplace, says Weisz. Making space for someone to cry or show empathy is allowing someone to be human, not female or male.
“Addressing these stereotypes is freeing for everyone and a key way to reduce resistance,” says Honoria, adding that women are often expected not to perform femininity or be super empathetic, while at the same time required to be seen as conforming.
Looking back on her career, Melanie Cole, partner at Aird & Berlis, says she often felt there wasn’t enough space to be authentic, often having to downplay her stereotypical female traits, while at other times softening stereotypical male traits that didn’t align with people’s expectations of her.
“I’m now focusing more on purpose, instead of defining myself in relation to these stereotypes and rejecting the more authentic parts of myself for fear they are conveying incompetence and weakness,” she says. “This has allowed me the mental space critical for my success and feels authentic to me.”
Focusing on image and perception can take away a lot of emotional and motivational resources that inform leadership, she cautions.
“So much of being a leader isn’t about how people see you, but about developing your own leadership identity and feeling like a leader, feeling confident and feeling as though you can lead with confidence in a representative way.”