One-third of female employees don’t believe they can reach C-suite

Yet many consider themselves ambitious, highly motivated: Survey

Women are holding senior leadership positions in greater numbers than ever before — but there’s no denying the gender gap in the boardroom is still alive and well. 

Part of that might be explained by attitudes revealed in a survey of 1,270 female professionals in Canada. 

One-half of the women described themselves as ambitious, while 47 per cent said they are highly motivated to advance their careers further, found a survey by American Express Canada and Women of Influence.

However, only 32 per cent of women believe it is achievable to reach the C-suite, and just 28 per cent aspire to such roles. 

It’s hard to say what the reasons are for why women aren’t aspiring to be executives, said Stephania Varalli, co-CEO and head of media at Women of Influence in Toronto. 

 “It could be partially because it doesn’t fit in with their lifestyle or their career ambitions, but if you don’t even think it’s possible, what sort of impact does that have on your own ambition?”

There are some interesting implications when it comes to reconsidering our definitions of ambition and success, said Naomi Titleman, vice-president of human resources at American Express Canada in Toronto. 

“(The stats are) saying something about the way we may have traditionally defined ambition, as well as there potentially is something that we can do as organizations to close the gap for those women who feel that they’re ambitious but just don’t see a way to the C-suite,” she said. 

“Women are clearly defining themselves as ambitious in different ways, which is great, and it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘Attain the C-suite’ or even ‘Attain senior management level.’ In my opinion, the way I define success is really knowing what you want short and longer term, and going for it. And what I mean by going for it is letting the people around the table — and this is where mentorship and sponsorship come into play as well — but letting people around the table who are making key decisions and influencing key decisions know what you want so that your career decisions aren’t made by someone else.

“It’s really important to start by really knowing what you want shorter and longer term, and going for it — and, that being said, being open to possibilities.”

Mentorship, sponsorship
A key piece of the puzzle may be the fact professional women in Canada lack mentors or champions to help coach them forward in their careers, found the survey. 

“Only 27 per cent of women feel that they have a mentor… and on the sponsorship front, only eight per cent of women feel that they have a sponsor,” said Titleman. 

Meanwhile, mentorship and sponsorship become more and more important, she said. 

“Just by sheer number of how many spots there are as we get more and more senior in the organization, you need someone who’s going to pound the table on your behalf. On the mentorship front, it’s really important for women to be able to speak to someone as a sounding board.”

In some ways, sponsorship can be even more difficult to attain because it’s not just something you can ask for, said Titleman. 

“Sponsorship is kind of something that’s earned and not asked for. So I’ve been asked many times ‘How do we get women to ask for sponsorship?’ And that is actually not possible. You have to put yourself in a position where someone actually wants to pound the table and put their reputation on the line for you,” she said. 

“Women — and people in general — feel much more confident when they know that they have someone who’s going to have their back.” 

Having mentorships and sponsorships are hugely important for workplace advancement, said Varalli. 

“For one, women typically have fewer sponsors than men do, and you can immediately see the impact of that in terms of what they think is possible in their career and what actually is possible in their career,” she said. 

“When a woman has a sponsor, that’s a person who can help them get into stretch assignments that help them move up, can get their name in the circle when people are talking about who should get promoted. People like to think that we’re in a meritocracy, but that’s a challenge if one-half of the population has those people going to bat for them, and the other half doesn’t.”

Case study
Encouraging women to set their sights high — and then follow through — has long been a priority at American Express Canada, said Titleman. 

“Everyone wants to know ‘What’s the silver bullet? How do we get more women in senior positions? How do we do it?’ And I think a lot of people are asking that question from ‘What kind of policies and practices and programs can I put in place?’ which, to me, is table stakes.”

Yes, it takes work and thought, but policies and programs are pretty easily replicated, she said. 

“Our secret sauce at AmEx is having those senior role models so that the more junior employees have someone that they can aspire to be like in top positions,” said Titleman. 

“We really walk the talk here… three of our four most senior finance roles are filled by women, one of our top risk roles is filled by a woman, about 59 per cent of our roles across the organization are filled by women. So we really do have that culture ingrained that we really have senior role models who come from different backgrounds and have different life situations and are at different points in their lives, but are willing to get out there and be role models and be open about what is negotiable and non-negotiable in their given situation and still make it work.”

There is also a very strong focus on creating work-life balance and a flexible work culture, said Titleman — which is a critical element. 

“We do a lot of that at AmEx, and we also embrace flexibility in quite a formal way. So our office structure is set up that 80 per cent of our workforce does not go to the same desk every single day. And most of those people work virtually one or two days a week. So we really walk the talk again around workplace flexibility,” she said. 

“I challenge leaders to be very open-minded about ‘Does this work really need to get done in the office every single day?’ And, generally, the answer is no, and that opens a whole new realm of flexibility that is highly appreciated by all.

“Those are just a couple of examples of how our culture really emphasizes what is needed in the workplace to do a little bit better for our women in the workforce.”

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