HR Leaders Talk: Promoting gender diversity

The need for initiatives to help women balance work and family responsibilities, and how HR should challenge male attitudes that stand in the way

Prabha Packiam

Human Resources Manager
HOK Canada

Part of the St. Louis-based HOK network, a major global architecture firm, HOK Canada employs 200 to 250 professionals in offices in Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa.

For a glimpse of a truly diverse, globalized workforce, Prabha Packiam says one needs look no further than the interior design department at HOK Canada, which offers services in three areas, interior design, architecture and urban planning.

“What’s great about interior design is you want creative artists. You don’t care if they come from the Philippines, China, India. Who has the vision that your client needs?” says Packiam, HOK Canada’s human resources manager.

It’s a different story when it comes to the firm’s architecture side, however, particularly with respect to gender diversity. Though Packiam is starting to see young women come out of architecture departments at the universities she recruits from, the field remains predominantly male.

“If you look at the profession itself, it is an extremely aggressive profession. You’re an artist, you’re always defending your ideas, your designs, and people are brought in to criticize you,” says Packiam. “Whether women don’t respond well to that or we’re a more nurturing species, I don’t know. But the profession itself seems to discourage women.”

Work demands may be part of the reason. Although HOK has all the right policies such as equal opportunity and work-life balance, says Packiam, not everybody can take advantage of the program. The reality is, she adds, it’s still tough for women to juggle family obligations and 60- or 70-hour weeks that can last for stretches of two months at a time.

“We’re happy to accommodate but once again, our company has to be sensitive to the whole thing about women and family issues interfering with who they could be at work. It’s still a barrier, in some ways, in the mind of leaders,” says Packiam. Last year, in one department alone, there were four women who left on maternity leave, several of them doing so after having just joined the firm.

“And I’ll be honest. Because this environment is so overwhelming and people work such late hours, (some women are) extending mat leave and coming back only for three days a week. You do the best to accommodate but there are times when the issue becomes a lot more front and centre, because a manager is dealing with multiple cases of that, and it further causes him to say, ‘What’ s going on?’ and ‘Why do I have to deal with this?’

“When your clients want something or when you’ve got projects and you’ve got construction going on… the nature of the business is not conducive to females as a group.”

This project-driven pace is seen in both architecture and interior design, but in the latter, there’s an array of jobs, including those that adhere to the nine-to-five schedule, that are more feasible for professionals with young children.

Packiam worries that with no women in team leader roles or project manager roles in the architecture side, there’s little hope women will be promoted into executive positions in the years to come.

In today’s world, she adds, success is built on the knowledge that people bring to the job, and companies can’t risk making their work environments unwelcome to any group of people. And if other leaders are too busy meeting clients’ needs to worry about diversity, Packiam says, then it’s HR’s job to keep the issue at the forefront.

“I think it’s HR’s mandate to highlight the inequities that are occurring that may not be visible to people busy working. We’re here to analyze the demographics and the composition. We realize that if we don’t address these issues, we are going to be in serious trouble,” says Packiam.

“I think it’s up to HR to push those issues and for me that means talking to them in their leadership meetings, talking individually to the partners, making them aware what can be done about it.” For HR not to do so, in her view, means HR is not contributing to the firm’s success.

Most of the managers and executives at HOK Canada are aware of the business case for gender diversity, she says. Occasionally, however, she encounters a backlash from the male professionals. “It’s never from the creative standpoint. It’s never in the design. It’s the management style or the teamwork dynamics,” says Packiam.

She recounts one incident where a number of male architects came to her and asked to have a female peer be removed from the team. What she did instead was put several team members into sensitivity training “to learn how to accept gender differences and the way we approach work.”

Doing so meant having to persuade a few managers that “I’m not going to make it easier on (the professionals) and I don’t care if they’re star performers. They are going to be managers and hopefully we’re going to have more females here and they’re just going to have to learn how to deal with this now.”

The incident was a reminder to Packiam “to this day, there is something about female authority that is not okay.” Being aggressive and raising one’s voice to defend one’s ideas may be the normal way of doing business in this profession, but when a woman raises her voice, she’s seen as “a bitch,” says Packiam.

Learning to work with a diversity of personalities and styles is even more important in today’s flat organization, where team dynamics replace authoritative relationships. “A good productive team allows every member to openly speak. That’s where your ideas and your valuable moments can happen. So please, of all the things to do, don’t suppress a voice in your team because you might lose the greatest idea you can come up with,” says Packiam.

And as for having to ruffle some managers’ feathers, Packiam is unapologetic. “If I’m not here to add that kind of value then what’s the purpose of my being here?… You have to be pretty confident in what you believe in.”

Valerie Petroff

HR Country Manager
Sun Microsystems of Canada

Sun Microsystems is a global computer sales and service company with more than 38,000 employees worldwide and 750 employees in Canada. The firm’s Canadian head office is in Markham, Ont.

The biggest barrier many women face when looking to advance in the executive ranks is their network, or lack thereof, says Valerie Petroff.

“Having the right relationships is key,” says the HR country manager at Sun Microsystems of Canada. “It’s all in who you know.”

Even when there are formal processes in place for succession planning and promotion, at the end of the day, the people who make the decisions are going to look to the people they know. If a woman hasn’t established and grown the right relationships, she can miss out on many opportunities.

“It behooves women to ask more questions and put ourselves in a position to learn about the unspoken networks, to try to get ourselves back in the right arena and make sure we’re involved with the people and the places where the decisions are being made,” says Petroff.

Petroff, like many women two decades ago, entered the HR profession through an administrative role. Men, however, usually started in higher-level functions such as job design or recruitment. Because of this, men tended to advance faster than women who were already playing catch-up with their male counterparts, Petroff says.

To counteract this inequity, Petroff decided to take courses and increase her visibility and strengthen her network by becoming a member of different work teams.

“My opportunity came because I had a female manager who was very sensitive to the (inequity),” she says. “But it’s the responsibility of the employee as well as the employer to make that happen.”

The reluctance to promote women for fear they will focus more on family commitments than work is valid to an extent. But it’s becoming less valid due to technology advances, says Petroff. “There’s so much more flexibility. At Sun, we work in a virtual work environment, so there’s a lot more flexibility around what your job looks like. You don’t have cut-and-dried hours where you have to be in or out, and a lot of people work from home,” she says. “It behooves employers to be more open and accommodating in that sense.”

But some of the responsibility also falls on women to communicate their desires and limitations. Many managers assume women with children won’t want to travel, but Petroff says many such employees at Sun Microsystems travel a lot. They’re able to make it work because of the company’s flexible work arrangements.

“It’s about the employee and the manager having the right communication,” she says, which in turn opens up more promotional and development opportunities for women.

In that vein, Sun Microsystems gives a high priority to hiring and promoting women. “It has a very high visibility, not just on its own, but from a broader perspective,” says Petroff.

To fight systemic discrimination based on gender or ethnicity, the company has instituted a global policy of systemic inclusion. “We ensure that our local employment equity plans are in alignment with the global inclusion strategy.”

The company requires that the recruiters have a process in place to ensure enough women are part of the candidate pool. Sun Microsystems is also working to put processes in place to ensure everybody is automatically considered in the talent pipeline and succession planning.

“Sun wants to be representative of the different demographics of the communities in which we live and work,” says Petroff. “It creates a competitive advantage for us and it positions us better to attract and retain the diverse customers and employees that we want. At the end of the day it makes good business sense and makes us successful.”

Brenda Brown

Vice-president of Human Resources
Compass Group Canada

A subsidiary of the United Kingdom’s Compass Group PLC, named the world’s 12th largest employer by Fortune Magazine, the Mississauga, Ont.-based food services company Compass Group Canada employs 18,000 people at six offices and 1,800 locations across Canada.

As a major employer in the food services industry, Compass Group Canada attracts a predominantly female workforce. Seventy-three per cent of the hourly associates, who make up 80 per cent of the overall workforce, are women. Women make up 25 per cent of the company’s management team.

It’s “a pretty good statistic,” says Brenda Brown, vice-president of human resources, noting that only 14 per cent of corporate officers in Canada’s 500 top companies are women, according to a 2004 survey by Catalyst Canada.

The need to hire and promote women is “top of mind for us,” says Brown. “The business case is that diversity of opinion originates from a diverse workforce. We have diverse customers. Therefore, if we’re not out there in front of our customers, we won’t be successful.”

Compass Group Canada’s strategies for promoting the presence of women begin at hiring, with “targeted recruitment plans” for each of the four designated categories. Making work flexible through telecommuting and job-sharing and flex-time programs is another strategy, says Brown. “If I look at barriers, women are still the primary caregivers, whether for children or aging parents. They are the ones who are going to have to worry about the child having trouble with a teacher or a child who’s sick. More often than not, it’s women who are preoccupied with that.”

Given the technology available, an employee’s physical presence is less a requirement today. But what remains crucial is a level of trust and respect between managers and employees.

“If your child is sick, and you say to your boss, ‘I can’t come in today. I have to stay home with my sick child, and by the way I have my laptop and cellphone and I am available and still going to get the job done,’ it’s that trust and respect that will really make the difference in terms of the environment that women are going to work in,” says Brown.

As an example, Brown points to a new mother whose son was having separation anxiety when she returned to work. When she wrote to her manager to say she would have to miss a big, out-of-town meeting, her manager wrote back “a nice letter saying, ‘I understand completely. Of course we’re 100 per cent behind you. We’ll bring the material back from this meeting. Your primary importance is your family,’” says Brown.

“And I felt this was a tremendous example of the leaps we have made over the years because, in some organizations, people would say, ‘Write her off. She’s no longer committed.’ But that wasn’t the case at all.”

Another example involves someone from Brown’s department who decided to extend her maternity leave from six months to a year. She was interested in working part time at home, “and I said, ‘Yeah. Terrific.’ I had some projects that she could do from home with the technology that we had available. She could be home with her young son but still be connected to the organization. So when she came back, she hadn’t been out of the workforce.”

Brown notes that although the same level of flexibility isn’t available for hourly employees who work in the front line, food production or customer service, “nobody’s fired because they have to be off to take care of their children.”

When it comes to the promotion of women into leadership positions, Brown says part of the talent management program at Compass Group Canada requires leaders to “highlight who are the up-and-coming women managers.

“We make a particular focus on women in the company. Who are they? Where are they? What development plans have been established for them? What moves do we have anticipated for them?”

Supporting this talent management priority is a mentorship program, which is heading into its third year. The human resource department, which is responsible for nurturing the program, solicits participants by having it open to whoever is interested, and by approaching both male and female high performers identified via the talent management program, and by “looking at the talent management results and saying, ‘Who are the up-and-coming women?’ and suggesting to them that they become part of the program. No one has ever refused, quite honestly.”

Brown, who has mentored four female managers to date, says having protégés has been an interesting experience for her, “because a lot of things you take for granted when you get to a senior position and you forget what it’s like to be a manager.” The kind of help her protégés have come to her for ranges from something as simple as how to do a presentation in front of a group of men to how to conduct oneself in a disciplinary review with co-workers “so that you don’t come off as either aggressive or wishy-washy,” says Brown.

“It’s having that opportunity to role-play and to bounce ideas off another person that has really benefitted the protégés that I’ve had. We’ve all gone through it but you tend to forget about it. I really find it fulfilling to talk them through certain situations, give them my support, give them my suggestions, be there as someone to role-play with because it helps to have another woman who has gone through it help them through their careers.”

The company evaluates program outcomes by asking participants to fill out a survey, and by tracking the career progression of the women who have taken part.

When it comes to her own career, Brown says she hasn’t encountered barriers, “and that’s because I was very selective about who I worked for. It’s very important to do your homework on the organization that you consider joining. You have to look at their practices. You have to look at the number of women in management roles. You have to be selective and ask demanding questions. That was always my approach.

“I did the whole work-life balance thing. I had a couple of kids and had to balance babysitting arrangements and working schedules and travelling, and multi-tasking and keeping a whole lot of balls in the air.” What that meant were days when she would have to leave work early after getting a call from the school saying that her son was sick. “I’d pack up my desk, go home, pick him up and continue working at night. I may not have been there at 5 o’clock in the afternoon but I was back on the computer at 9 o’clock at night.”

Leandra Lackie

Vice-president Human Resources
CNC Global

Staffing firm CNC Global specializes in contract and full-time IT professionals. Headquartered in Toronto, the firm has 260 employees, the majority of whom are salespeople.

When hiring for in-house positions, CNC Global looks for people with an entrepreneurial spirit who are “money hungry,” says the company’s vice-president of HR. It just so happens that more than half of the company’s workforce is made up of women and that women represent 60 per cent of all promotions.

“We really want people who are motivated to succeed,” says Leandra Lackie. “We’ve been very clear about the type of individual we want, someone who’s been successful in the past, and it just turns out that we have an equal representation of both women and men in our organization.”

Recently the organization has experienced a baby boom, says Lackie. And while there have been many women out on maternity leave who then return to work with very young children at home, their drive and ambition haven’t been affected at all.

“It’s been wonderful to see these women have children and they’re back at work,” she says. “While they’re raising their children, the numbers that these salespeople, these women, are bringing in and the amount of money that they’re making and their drive, it’s amazing.”

So far, none of the managers have raised family commitments as a concern in the workplace, says Lackie. In fact, the company has even developed policies, including flexible work arrangements, to help employees with family commitments.

She says that in her own career as an HR professional, her gender hasn’t impeded her advancement, and even if there were any barriers, she would ignore them and push on through. Her female colleagues in management report the same lack of gender-specific barriers, says Lackie, and any barriers that they face are the same for everyone at the company. The most common challenge that employees report is finding the time for professional development in a rapidly changing environment.

To help employees tackle this challenge, Lackie instituted a development plan for sales managers last year that focuses on what each employee needs to do to get to the next level. She then checks in with the employees twice a year to see how they’re doing.

She finds that if employees write down their goals and have someone to hold them accountable, then they’re more likely to be successful. Eventually, Lackie hopes to do the same with all CNC employees.

The company also has a mentoring program and a “masters program” to help employees develop leadership skills. In the masters program, a team of top performers are given a business challenge to tackle. “It gives them the opportunity to think strategically and to think like a leader in the company and not just focus on their area,” says Lackie. “Once they’ve come up with a solution to whatever the problem is, they will then present it to the entire executive team.”

She sees a lot of room for advancement in HR and says that it’s a very exciting time to be part of the profession. HR has moved away from soft tasks, such as planning parties, and is now a true business partner providing value along with marketing, IT and sales.

If there’s any challenge for women in HR now, it’s to accept this change and learn to think like a businessperson. However, Lackie says it’s the same challenge for both men and women in the profession.

“I think there are challenges in the HR profession but I don’t think that has anything to do with gender,” she says. “I think male or female we all have our barriers but if you’re a hard worker and you’re driven to succeed then you’re going to do well.”

Gayle Johnson

vice-president of Human Resources

Headquartered in Regina, the credit union employs about 940 people.

Since its creation in 2003 from the merger of credit unions in Saskatchewan communities such as Regina, Moose Jaw, Assiniboia, Bethun and Chamberlain, Conexus has not stopped growing.

In less than two years, the staff size has more than tripled: from 330 people in March 2004 to 600 in October, and with the merger with three more credit unions in Moosomin, Prince Albert and Humboldt on Jan. 1, the Conexus workforce now stands at around 940. With $1.9 billion in assets, the credit union is now the seventh largest in Canada.

The pace of change has left the human resource department with little opportunity to step back and look at its workforce composition and its long-term staffing needs. Right now, its major concern is staff training. Staff at the credit union’s 48 branches have to learn to work with some of the new technology platforms. Of the 26 support departments, some are being centralized and relocated in communities right across the province, and that’s “because we said nobody would lose their jobs if the credit unions merged,” says Gayle Johnson, executive vice-president of human resources.

As a result, the back office lending department, for example, will be located in Assiniboia, a town of 2,600 people, and the accounting function will be centralized in Humboldt, a town of 5,500. For this to work, “everybody will have to learn a new job,” says Johnson.

As is the case with its counterparts in the industry, Conexus’ front-line staff is predominantly female, with women accounting for three in four employees. That proportion falls to 65 per cent when one looks one level up, at the branch managers and department managers. In the higher echelons, women hold two of the five regional vice-president positions and only one out of the seven executive positions. That would be Johnson herself.

“It is a nagging issue and one we’ll have to consider down the road,” says Johnson, adding however that “if there is a business case, we don’t have one at this point.

“We have not defined our workforce demographic properly. Now what we have to do is look at our population and then start looking at how many are retiring, and then put together a plan for hiring and promoting and retaining people.”

Having landed this role five years ago, after working for approximately 25 years in various functions in the credit unions, Johnson knows well how traditional the credit union can be. It wasn’t too long ago, in the early ’80s years, when Johnson was discouraged from seeking the branch manager position. “People would say, ‘You’re doing such a good job where you are,’ or ‘The customers they don’t want to talk to a woman.’ I had to fight. I had to be persistent and do a lot of talking.”

Given that strong sense of tradition, reinforced by the customer base in the farming community, Johnson senses that any initiative Conexus takes to tackle the issue of hiring and promoting women will have to be quite subtle.

“It just seems to me that any program that targets women in particular would only cause friction among the men… It would create barriers,” says Johnson.

Stronger prospects lie instead in leadership development opportunities, including opportunities for female managers with high potential to undertake special projects. For example, Johnson points to a woman seconded as a project leader for the customer relationship management system. Through such opportunities, she was able to make her name and gain the attention of the vice-president of retail banking.

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