When she looked up at the towering building that is Unilever headquarters on Bloor Street in Toronto, 15-year-old Alice Chen admitted to feeling intimidated.
“It seemed like something that was impossible or very difficult for me to feel comfortable or succeed in,” she said. “I was definitely the youngest person who was walking into the building.”
But the high school student from Oakville didn’t let fear stop her from chasing down a career dream on Oct. 4.
She stepped inside and made her way to the CEO’s suite where Gary Wade was awaiting her arrival as part of Plan International Canada’s #GirlsBelongHere, planned in sync with the International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11.
The event saw business and government leaders — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — sharing their offices with young women in an effort to show that girls belong in their dream jobs.
“Despite the many strides we’ve made, girls still face a ‘dream gap’ — a combination of barriers such as gender inequality, negative stereotypes and discrimination that hold them back from fulfilling their potential,” said Caroline Riseboro, president and CEO of Plan International Canada in Ottawa. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s stop limiting that… If you can see it, you can dream it. If you can see it, you can aspire to it.’”
Around the world, young women continue to face hardships, she said, noting that a recent survey by Plan International showed 60 per cent of Canadian girls believe gender continues to inhibit their career choices and goals.
“There’s still lots of work and progress that we need to make here in Canada,” said Riseboro.
As part of the initiative, more than 500 girls in 60 countries — including 17 girls in Canada — took on leadership roles in capacities such as prime minister of Finland and mayor of Dublin — positions traditionally held by men.
Participants were expected to weigh in with opinions and take part in decision-making, she said.
“It’s a global movement to be able to draw attention to the plight, but also the power of girls,” said Riseboro.
“It may be small, but the seats that they’re taking on are very significant.”
A day at Unilever
Chen’s day with the CEO of Unilever — a multinational corporation selling products such as Axe deodorant, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Dove soaps — began with a morning meeting outlining Wade’s schedule before poring over a daily sales report.
“This was a really informative meeting because it helped guide me into the role I would be stepping into, and essentially the responsibilities and the different elements of the job,” said Chen.
“‘CEO’ is a very vague title and that’s one of the reasons why it made it so intimidating for me… (but) what I noticed happened a lot during my day was the importance of communication.”
From there, she sat in on two brand marketing meetings, with pitches made by the Dove and Seventh Generation teams.
Chen saw the process behind advertising pitches, with many voices chiming in to make a singular product more effective for both consumers and business.
“The meetings were particularly informative, exposing me to new elements of the business and corporate sector that I’d never imagined before,” she said. “I felt my voice particularly came out when we were looking at advertisements that in the past were used to target youth and young adults. That’s where I was able to have the most input and kind of represent a younger generation.”
The day was meant to be an authentic experience of what it’s like to lead a large organization, said Wade. Alongside the many meetings, the two partook in a charity Thanksgiving luncheon.
Wade also encouraged Chen to spend time building connections with employees representing business resource groups.
From his perspective, Chen was struck by the job’s attention to minutiae.
“One of the things in a senior job is you’re just going from meeting to meeting,” he said. “She was surprised about how much detail we would spend talking about a piece of print advertising for Dove, and debating the merits and how people might (react), and how we would use it… I think from her perspective, it was a very eye-opening day.”
Advice for employers
Being able to picture the role of CEO is crucial to future success, said Chen of her experience.
“I thought this was something out of my reach and that after this day, it would be cut out of my life, but my day at Unilever showed me that this is something girls should dream about and work hard towards, and I really hope that other girls in Canada get this message as well,” she said.
“It’s less (about) the technical skills that I gained throughout the day, it was more about having an empowered and inspired mindset and believing that it was something possible for me.”
Feeling like she was part of the team was the most powerful moment of the day, said Chen.
“Feeling like you’re part of the team and that you deserve to be here — particularly for girls who perhaps may feel intimidated or shy — having the feeling of confidence and belonging helps them feel attracted and succeed within a corporate environment.”
As for Unilever, which is gender-balanced in terms of its Canadian workforce, the choice to become involved in this initiative was an easy one, said Wade.
“We believe on gender equality that there’s a role government needs to play. There’s a role that NGOs need to play, and there’s a role that society needs to play. And there’s a huge role that business needs to play,” he said. “So I think, as business leaders, we need to be really leaning into gender equality and to be authentic and overt about what we are doing.”
While many Canadian corporations adhere to robust diversity and inclusion initiatives, harmful gender norms still plague women, keeping them out of leadership roles, said Riseboro.
“Oftentimes, girls don’t aspire as high because they don’t see themselves reflected in many of the roles of leadership around the country,” she said. “How can a woman aspire to be a bank president if they’ve never seen a female lead a bank before? Or how can a girl aspire to be prime minister one day if she’s never seen a woman in that role?”
“If you want to build your pipeline, people need to be able to see it first before they actually can take the step to achieve it. You’ve got to see it to achieve it.”
And while the Trudeau government is working to make gender a national conversation, “the area where we most need progress is in the corporate space,” said Riseboro. Through participation in programs such as #GirlsBelongHere, employers can “challenge the status quo and have a young woman sit in a seat of power and meaningfully participate in a decision. That starts to change how we operate.”
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