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More women in the C-suite? The numbers don’t look good

Kirstine Stewart and others discuss what may keep women out of the corner office

It was one of the first real jobs of her career, but Stéphanie Bleau remembers him well. Without going into too many details, let’s just say he was the company’s general manager, and by all accounts, not a very good one. He was also not necessarily the most confident leader, which she also picked up right away. In a sense, he became a sort of accidental mentor.

“I remember thinking, ‘If that guy can run a company, I definitely can,” said Bleau, who trained as a lawyer but moved into marketing and is now the CMO of Toronto-based retailer The Bentley Group.  “I always learn from everybody. In fact, some of my worst bosses gave me the best lessons.”

Unfortunately, Bleau may be something of an outlier among her peers, many of whom sound less certain about their career prospects of becoming a CMO, a CEO or even seeking a promotion that could give them greater responsibility.

Two weeks ago, for example, American Express Canada and the association Women of Influence released a study based on a survey of close to 1,300 women that looked at their career aspirations and ambitions. Though the sample was divided between female entrepreneurs and those working in corporate roles, the overall results were consistent. Less than half (47%) feel highly motivated to advance their careers and less than a third (28%) say that’s what they want.

Kirstine Stewart, Twitter

Kirstine Stewart,

The statistics came as little surprise to Kirstine Stewart, vice-president of North American media at Twitter and author of the recent book Our Turn, which captures her thoughts on female leadership challenges.

“I think it is reflective of the world we live in,” she told Marketing. “The studies and the research points to the fact that women will not put themselves up for a role if, when they have to asses themselves, they feel they have to have 100% of the qualities of that next role. Men will jump at maybe a 60% match.”

Stewart said that, in the course of promoting Our Turn, she continues to hear variations of the same story: women who regretted not taking a promotion or pursuing an opportunity.

“The conversations always turn to what would have happened,” she said, adding that it’s important to realize that women may not all frame career growth the same way. “As we move through generations, it’s good that they’re less concerned in what others’ definition of success is, versus what you yourself value. If you don’t check off a particular box by the time you’re 30, that doesn’t mean you’re not successful. We’ve moved away from that.”

Naomi Titleman, vice-president of human resources at American Express Canada, said for those women who aim for the brass ring — whatever it is — they need to be vocal and form the right relationships. The survey also showed, for instance, that only 8% of women feel they have a “sponsor,” or someone more senior who will champion their work. Among those that do, however, 89% said a sponsor makes them feel like a high-potential employee, and 62% said it made them feel like they could reach the C-suite one day.

“It’s important to bring that conversation (about your ambitions) way more to the forefront.” Titleman said. “Especially as you get more senior, you cannot get the top spot without someone who has influence pounding the table on your behalf. It’s way too much of a competitive world to just keep your head down.”

Karrie Van Belle, head of Canada marketing and communications at investment firm Blackrock Inc., said it’s about developing your own comfortable taking on what might be considered a “stretch role,” but also actively pursuing avenues for personal growth.

“Women are sometimes waiting for their shoulders to be tapped,” she said. “To some degree, I was probably like that early on, and then I realized it doesn’t work that way. You have to have the ability to ask for the opportunity.”

Stephanie Bleau, Bentley Group

Stephanie Bleau,
Bentley Group

Although more than a quarter of women surveyed (27%) said they had a mentor to ask for advice and guidance, that’s still far short of the majority. Bleau said she now participates as a mentor for young women in an MBA program, but that her best mentor was probably her own sister-in-law.

“She was always there for me, and I always asked a lot of questions. I’ve never been shy to speak to people whenever I’ve had big challenges. I guess it wasn’t something where I was going to go out and look for a mentor. It just happened.”

Although many formal mentorship programs exist, even within companies, Stewart said a more informal route may be best.

“I’m not sure that a structured mentorship is the way to go. I always call it a muscle that needs constant exercise,” she said.

“Where mentorship relationships fall short is where it programmatic and engineered,” Titleman added.

Besides getting to know female employees and coaching them, one way companies can help promote more women to the C-suite, of course, is in how they market their products and services and even their career opportunities.

While not all ad campaigns contains helpful depictions of women in the workplace, Stewart said the public’s tolerance for stereotypical images — and the way they can respond to it — is changing.

“I think we’ve got a chorus we didn’t have before in social media and where people have their own voice. If they feel underrepresented, they now have platforms for people to express themselves,” she said.

Titleman said Amex Canada has been very active in this area, building messages around its virtual workplace policies and ensuring diversity of both gender and race is well-represented across its branding.

“What I will say just from an HR standpoint is you have a story to back it up,” she said. “It’s one thing to splash the one token female on an ad, and another to look at a company and see all three of our most senior finance people are women. Two of our past four presidents have been women.”

On an individual level, Stewart suggested that if a woman is told by a senior leader they could handle a tougher job, they should believe it and muster up their confidence. On the other hand, when those opportunities aren’t coming as regularly they may need to recognize the circumstances that are beyond their control.

“The times that are risky reinforce the status quo,” she said. “I think right now my biggest concern is that the economy holds us back from the natural progress that would be happening.”

Van Belle recommended always thinking beyond your current job title and being laser-focused on the organization’s overall objectives.

“One of the things I really think of when I think about how I approach my job is that I lead with my business perspective,” she said. “The marketing piece how I bring that strategy to life. It’s about understanding the business, regardless of what role you might be sitting in. Anyone — male or female — can and should be doing that.”

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Photography by Death To The Stock Photo
See all comments Recent Comments

Women definitely have to bang loud on the table in order to gain seats at it. However, constantly placing the onus on women’s shoulders reinforces the status quo–men get to keep doing what they’ve always been doing. Women are inundated with advice on how to bend and twist their way into male-dominated spaces. Where are the articles, workshops, and conferences focusing on what men should be doing to level the field?

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