Women CEOs talk

|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/09/2003

While women have made tremendous strides in recent years toward achieving an equitable working world, there is also little doubt significant challenges still remain. Who best to talk about those issues than women themselves, especially those who have moved up through the ranks and “seen it all” on their way to the top. Canadian HR Reporter tracked down five female CEOs to talk about the barriers women face in the workplace, their struggles and triumphs. They tackle subjects like motherhood, mentoring and the glass ceiling, and tell us what they’re doing to promote and encourage gender diversity.

Carol Stephenson, President and CEO
Lucent Canada

With its head office in Markham, Ont., Lucent Canada employs 250 employees across the country and is a leading player in the communications networking market, including e-business, wireless, optical, data and voice technologies.

Carol Stephenson, president and CEO of Lucent Canada, remembers with a laugh how in one of her first jobs in management at Bell Canada — in the “plant department” — she was told by her boss that women shouldn’t be in that department.

To be sure those days are gone, says Stephenson, but she also has no doubt that barriers still exist for working women in Canada.

“There are still some remnants of the glass ceiling,” she says of the work world generally. “I think we all have to admit it is better than it was. But if you look at the number of female CEOs in Canada we certainly are not 50 per cent. And it has been long enough, there have been enough women in the pipeline who are educated and who want to have a career, so I think that does lead you to look at the barriers as subtle as they might be.”

As for the notion that corrections were made some time ago and that it is only a matter of time before women move up through the ranks to senior positions: “It doesn’t cut if for me,” she says.

By now women should fill almost 50 per cent of all senior roles. “There should be plenty of women in the pipeline to fill these jobs,” she adds.

“To try and create a case that there just aren’t enough women in the workforce who are interested in executive positions, I don’t believe that. I know lots of women who are very interested and very good at what they do.”

There probably isn’t anything conspiratorial in this anymore, she says, it is simply a matter of old habits dying hard and a lack of concerted effort to develop women for senior roles — though some misguided assumptions do continue to linger.

“I don’t think it is mean spirited or intentional or anything,” she says. “I don’t think it is a bunch of male CEOs plotting to ensure that women are kept back. In fact, they would love to have more women. That is why I think it is the subtle things.” Picking a woman for leader on a high-profile project can really help her career. “Sometimes they aren’t considered. People say ‘You know she has two young children I don’t know if she can handle this.’”

It is unfounded assumptions like these that continue to slow the progress of women in the workplace.

“The other thing is making sure that women do get in the proper jobs so that they can advance so that they don’t get streamed into traditional female jobs, like HR is one, communications is one. It is really important that they are given line jobs and profit and loss responsibility because you need that to become a CEO and sometimes subtly people don’t put as many qualified women into those jobs.”

At Lucent Canada — where about 30 per cent of the workforce is female, as are two of the five members of the senior leadership team — they are getting better at providing women with those opportunities for development, says Stephenson.

When they do succession planning, for example, they are at least aware of the challenges women face and what the leadership team should be doing to help them move up.

“Let’s say we are doing a succession plan for sales. And let’s say three candidates are named and they are all men. I will ask the question, ‘Are there any women that you could see moving into this role?’ Now if the answer is no then the answer is no. But what about the next rung down and what are we doing to develop that rung down so they can move into that slot,” she explains.

“I am not a big believer in quotas for example. But I am a believer that you should be conscious of this. And if there aren’t any, why aren’t there and is there something we should be doing from a development perspective to make sure we have a diverse workforce here?”

That means ensuring women are receiving line responsibilities and the broad range of experience required so that they aren’t streamed into traditional female roles.

“I think we as the senior management team have our jobs cut out for us to make sure that we are enabling those opportunities to happen,” she says. It is something she works closely with HR on, but it is not a job for HR alone.

“We talk about that as a senior team,” she explains. “If you try to treat this as an HR issue it tends to not become as much an important part of the business as your financial results. So as far as I’m concerned that discussion is a collective discussion amongst us all.”

And while being male does not preclude a CEO from understanding the unique issues women face in the workplace, being female tends to make one more aware of these concerns, having gone through them oneself.

“There are some really simple things we can all do as leaders which I certainly do in the companies I lead. For example, a 7 a.m. conference call if you a mom trying to get your child to daycare can totally throw off your day. I don’t do that. The other thing is making sure we have flexible hours and telecommuting arrangements for women who want to work from home. They are not things that are extremely hard to do but they are things that can make a big difference for a woman when they’re trying to juggle so much.”

Janice Tomlinson, President
Chubb Insurance Company of Canada

Established in 1928, Chubb Insurance Company of Canada provides insurance solutions through a network of local offices in Monreal, Toronto, Oakville, Calgary and Vancouver.

Back in the early ’70s it wasn’t easy for a young woman just out of college to figure out what it would take to succeed in the financial services sector.

“The reality was back in those days there weren’t female role models so most of us were trying to find our way as we were moving through an organization and learning how to compete in an environment that was male dominated without taking on what I’ll call all the male characteristics. Because frankly I think there are different management styles,” says Janice Tomlinson, chairman and president, Chubb Insurance Company of Canada. (Tomlinson has opted to retain the title “chairman” rather than use “chair” or “chairperson.”)

She credits two male mentors who were aware of the unique challenges she faced as a woman in a business dominated by men. They helped her along the way — though she is quick to point out she was never cut any slack.

“What they really taught me was to be assertive without being aggressive. To make certain you knew when to make your point without being overly aggressive about the things that need to be done and I think that served me very well over the course of 28 years,” she says.

At Chubb more than half of the employees are female (292 out of 450) and women are well represented at the senior level: two of Tomlinson’s six senior vice-presidents are women, six of the 15 vice-presidents and eight of the 20 assistant vice-presidents are also female.

Chubb has been bringing women into the company, but she adds that they can’t rest on their laurels. “I’m never satisfied,” she says.

Chubb hires a number of university graduates each year (likely 17 or 18 this year) and most of the time new grad hires are half male and half female. “Certainly with the talent that we see coming off the university campuses, there is a large number of women that we are able to bring into the organization.”

The company also participates in some of the corporate programs run from the U.S. head office. For example, each year female execs from Chubb Canada are sent to an executive development program for women at Smith College in Massachusetts.

And while there is no formal mentoring program at Chubb, a lot of informal mentoring goes on, says Tomlinson.

They are also determined to help working mothers cope with dual roles.

“My feeling about it, and HR feels exactly the same way, is that we are retaining our talent. I’d rather be in the position where we have taken someone who has been well-trained by Chubb and work out an arrangement for three days a week or four days a week and have that talent remain in the organization,” she says.

And as a working mother herself (with a son now in college), Tomlinson can relate to mothers who are torn between a commitment to a career and the desire to spend time with children.

“I think there is a natural tendency for women to want to do it all and I think there is a natural tendency to feel guilty when you are not doing it all,” she says.

Working mothers have to learn to focus on what is important. And what is important is making certain that you are creating a home life that your child is going to be happy in. “We talk about outsourcing in the corporate world, so you outsource at home the things that you really don’t need to do. You find someone else to do it for you and that is the way you make it work. Does that make it totally easy, no it doesn’t, but if you are really committed to a career you are committed to creating the right kind of opportunity for your child and for your spouse, you figure out the things that are important and those are the things you pay attention to.”

Lib Gibson, President and CEO
Bell Globemedia Interactive

Bell Globemedia Interactive has more than 500 employees and is based in Toronto. The company is responsible for all Internet Web sites owned by Bell Globemedia including CTV News (ctvnews.com) and Discovery Channel Canada (exn.ca).

In the 1970s, gender discrimination was huge. Many men were blatant about their sexist attitudes, yet Lib Gibson believed she was never directly affected.

“In some ways my experience made me a bit naive to how bad it could actually be for women,” says Gibson, now president and CEO of Bell Globemedia Interactive.

Gibson was one of the lucky ones. Right after graduating from university, she landed her first job with IP Sharp, a Canadian technology company. She worked there for 18 years, and says the organization had a very forward way of thinking at that time.

“That was a really 21st century company in 1970 with zero discrimination on grounds of gender, sexual orientation and race. I wasn’t conscious of feeling that people got inhibited in their careers because they were female.”

However, Gibson also remembers events that happened to other women outside of her company, which suggested significant barriers still existed. In Calgary, women were not allowed to socialize at a particular restaurant that men were known to frequent for business lunches. Gibson heard of a woman who was part of a group of men who wanted to do lunch there, and she was refused entry at the door.

“She realized she wasn’t allowed in and the guys just said goodbye to her at the door and left her there, standing on the street.”

Gibson has had her own experiences as well. She was in Edmonton and tried to pick up the tab for lunch with a customer, and the waiter would not accept her payment. He seemed to think that a woman should not be paying for lunch, she says. She finally let the customer pay. She also recalls going for a job interview before she was hired on with IP Sharp and she wanted to go for a specific position, but was told women were not fit to do the job.

Gibson has faced a few challenges along her career path, but she never let it get in the way of her goals for advancement.

“My style is much more to ignore them and go blasting forward rather than fixate on them.”

She has definitely stayed true to her word, sitting as the president and CEO of Bell Globemedia Interactive, in charge of all new media initiatives across the division of the company. And in terms of diversity at her company, she says the measure of success is how far down in the organization you have to go before you get to the first woman.

“I’d love to see a measure (created determining) how many levels down from the CEO or from the chairman does it take before you get to the first female.”

Around 55 per cent of Gibson’s workforce are female and almost 50 per cent of her direct reports are also female. They don’t have any specific programs in place assisting women in their workplace, she says, they just deal with their employees on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re not a big policy-driven organization, so what we have is more of an attitude and a style of trying to be as accommodating as we can.”

For employees that are committed and engaged parents outside of work (she says this applies to both men and women in her company), she creates options for them that best suit their lifestyle. She provides the opportunity to work at home one day a week and new mothers are able to start back from maternity leave working part time to slowly make the transition to full-time work.

According to Gibson, workload is not the major barrier for new mothers though, it’s their lack of confidence.

“I think that’s the biggest problem I have seen among women. Women who are awesome, but have lost confidence in themselves because they went off on maternity leave.”

In terms of mentoring women exclusively in her organization, Gibson doesn’t subscribe. She says if they were to set up a mentoring program, it would be for all employees, men and women. She has no objections to taking a female under her wing, but she says she would do exactly the same thing for a man.

“I don’t think that’s the best way to serve women, to have them stereotyped as being proactively more helpful to women.”

She says the best way to serve other women in business is by being a good businesswoman, which helps grow support for women in senior roles.

Cheryl Barker, President and CEO
Bell Intrigna

Bell Intrigna, which employs 640 people, offers telecommunications products and services to customers in Alberta and British Columbia. It is a joint initiative launched in 1999 between Manitoba Telecom Services and Bell Canada.

Being aggressive is what got Cheryl Barker, currently president, CEO and chair of Bell Intrigna, to the top of her game. Once a chartered accountant, Barker has held numerous positions, including executive vice-president finance and chief financial officer of Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS). She says just being a professional woman is enough of a challenge.

“There has been the predisposition (by men) to not take you as seriously, and women are therefore inclined to have to take on a more forceful personality.”

Many of her negative experiences date back to the mid-’80s when gender sensitivity was not as important as it is now. When Barker first started at MTS as a treasurer, she attended one of her first dinner meetings with all of senior management in attendance. She sat next to one of the vice-president’s and he asked her whose secretary she was. She says things have come a long way.

“Now that’s 1987 and I’d say there has been considerable progress since then,” she says.

“There have been improvements over the last number of years and I think it’s been dramatic. There is a recognition of the value that women bring to the workplace.”

One of the reasons things have changed, says Barker, is the greater societal awareness of women’s issues. Men are beginning to be sensitized about their attitudes towards women in the workplace, and there are bigger consequences for those who hold sexist views.

“Men could seriously put themselves in jeopardy by doing things like that (being sexist at work). Plus, there’s a stronger influence of women in the workplace. The ones that are successful are very strong and they have lead the way for change.”

Although there have been changes, the situation is far from perfect, says Barker. Motherhood, she says, is still a major issue that we have come to grips with. There haven’t been effective programs encouraging women through motherhood.

“You can limit your career opportunities because you decide to take a year off and then you have to come back in a less demanding role.

“If you can’t travel, if you can’t stay late, you can’t have the job. And at exceedingly senior levels, that’s almost impossible to deal with because that’s part of the job. In some ways that’s never going to change.”

An understanding spouse or extended family can ease the tension, she says, but it’s still hard, and Barker knows because she’s been a single mom for a long time.

Balancing a career and family is doable if you have a number of support systems, which should include your employer.

Inclusion versus exclusion is another systemic barrier women face. Barker says many businesses’ “bonding activities” outside of work tend to favour men.

“It’s golf or fishing up north, and there’s an assumption that perhaps a woman doesn’t want to do that and therefore she gets excluded.”

Because of this, women don’t get the same opportunities to build business relationships that are required at higher levels, says Barker.

To get a stronger representation of females in business, especially in fields such as engineering that are underrepresented, companies need to encourage and initiate programs directed at young women in university and high school.

“There are systemic issues that start as early as junior high (in terms of) young women making choices about their careers,” says Barker. “We’re losing a huge talent pool, they’re going to other areas and that’s good for those other areas but we are left limited. You don’t get the breadth, the depth and the scope of having female engineers when they choose another career.”

Since Bell Intrigna is just getting its feet off the ground, Barker is creating a strong culture before she puts diversity programs in place. She says they have a flat organization right now, but over time as they grow in size, a mentoring program will be valuable. But until then, she’s open to taking one or two employees under her wing, male or female. In fact, she encourages her employees to take initiative.

“I really believe in putting people in front of decision-makers, making presentations and things like that, providing them with an opportunity to sweat it out and grow as an employee. That’s how you learn.”

Maureen Kempston Darkes, President and General Manager
General Motors of Canada Limited

GM of Canada is an Oshawa, Ont.-based automobile manufacturing company and employs 26,000 people.

Often times the informal structure of an organization is just as important as the formal one. Maureen Kempston Darkes, the first woman president and general manager of General Motors of Canada, found this piece of information out simply from observation.

“My experience is that men are ‘let in on this fact’ much earlier in their careers than women, and are more likely to be inducted into the informal system by other men,” she says. “Because women face so many other cultural impediments to maximizing their performance, their focus is often distracted from learning the subtleties of the corporate culture.”

Kempston Darkes has been fortunate to overcome this barrier and she couldn’t have done it without mentoring and looking to others to learn the tricks of the trade. She says she’s had a number of outstanding leaders to emulate, as well as mentors who gave her the opportunity to experience a broad range of work experiences. Regardless of this systemic informal structure, Kempston Darkes says the glass ceiling is not as difficult to shatter, and women are making great strides in the business industry.

“The support I received enabled me to not just to break through the glass ceiling, but to break through the glass walls to the kind of experiences that helped prepare me for senior leadership positions.”

GM Canada is dedicated to the advancement of women. They have approximately 2,500 female employees which, “considering the nature of our business and the history of our workforce is quite significant,” she says, since the automobile industry has historically been male dominated. Around 38 per cent of the members of GM’s board of directors are female and more than 16 per cent of the total executive population is female, a record that Kempston Darkes is very proud of. She says diversity in the workplace is important in order to maximize productivity.

“We understand that without a significant number of women and minorities in the senior ranks — and in the pipeline to join higher ranks — we compromise the overall capacity of our workforce.”

To achieve this, GM has a number of programs in place to assist women including the Women’s Advisory Council (WAC). WAC is a national council founded in 1983 to attract and retain female employees. WAC implemented a unique program exclusive to GM called TIPS (Targeting Improved Participation of Women in Manufacturing). This program allows interested candidates to be released from their jobs for a four-month period and work as first-line-manufacturing supervisors. During this time they receive mentoring support.

“Upon completion (of the program), they can return to their original job or, if interested, can opt for a permanent career in manufacturing.”

WAC is also responsible for developing a formal mentoring program for all GM employees. Kempston Darkes says this program, created in 1997, is beneficial because in a complex business like GM they need to make sure everyone has access to effective mentoring. She says it is critical for career advancement.

“It (the program) provides a mentoring partnership service and a clearly mapped-out process to ensure that the mentor and the mentee get the most out of it.”

She also thinks women who have achieved some success have an obligation to share their knowledge and experience with others.

Work-life balance is another important issue for Kempston Darkes. They provide their employees with flexible work hours, telecommuting, and job sharing. GM was recently named one of the “100 best companies for working mothers” by Working Mother magazine, a title they have received for the tenth time. “This work-life balance applies not only to having children but also to many other personal matters such as aging parents. I believe employers recognize the realities of today’s work environment and are putting programs in place to resolve these challenges.”

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *