The topics discussed ranged from neurological differences in gender and implementing changes within a company to accommodate for these powerful differences, to the fluctuating priorities and tough decisions associated with maternity leave.
The frank conversational style of the panel provided unique glimpses into the career paths and personal lives of each woman. Despite coming from different industries and rising through the ranks differently than one another, emergent themes surfaced. One theme revolved around being true to your strengths and personality traits as a leader while still being confident in your ability to make tough business calls and take risks. “There is only one of you; be authentic” Banik said. Another theme that emerged focused on how priorities change based on the period of life someone is in, and that the choices that women make should be based around what works for each individual and family.
As the title of event insinuated, the panelists’ responses were told through the use of stories and lived experiences. With a desire to improve the working environment for women at Morrison Hershfield, a firm in the male-dominated engineering industry, Karakatsanis hired an external consultant to teach gender differences and equality to the executive and senior management teams. This training was received with genuine interest and curiosity and has resulted in compelling and beneficial differences in the day-to-day experiences for women within the company. One policy that had been implemented since the training removed the requirement that employees have to work full-time to be a shareholder, allowing for a more flexible work environment. Other policies include not measuring success based on male behaviours as well as conducting reviews of job postings and hiring practices. “Choosing where you work is important. If the place doesn’t appreciate you or women, you’re not going to be successful,” noted Karakatsanis.
Speaking about each woman’s journey to the C-Suite, Wilson and Wolfe stressed the importance of speaking up and making known one’s intentions for advancement and “ambition” (referred to by Wilson as the “A” word). Jacob added that, on top of that, the importance of honing your skills and owning your work shouldn’t be overlooked when looking to advance your career.
On the topic of motherhood and the changing priorities that comes with different stages of life, the panelists cited the importance of making decisions based on your individual and family needs. “Seventy-five percent of people will tell you it’s the wrong thing,” Banik said. She described the importance of “blending” home and work life rather than having a work/life “balance.” Wilson recounted an instance where she rehearsed an important pitch to her sons a number of times and how they all cried together afterwards, when it didn’t go exactly as anticipated.
Banik noted that as you become more influential in your career, it’s important to encourage sidebar conversations and to speak up in meetings about unfair gender characterizations by asking “is that how we would identify other individuals exhibiting similar qualities?” Wilson used an example of the commentary surrounding Hillary Clinton during the US presidential campaign when her actions were being unfairly characterized because of her gender when she was strictly demonstrating presidential behaviour. Karakatsanis referenced studies that show the majority of good leaders and CEOs have characteristics historically associated with females. “The dictatorial, autocratic leadership style doesn’t work anymore… That lends itself very well to women,” she said. Jacob, who also works in a male-dominated industry on a leadership team that is not very gender-diversified, pointed out the realistic decisions she makes in not offering clients coffee and her awareness of what kind of image that action portrays. . “That’s not my authentic self, though. If someone comes to my house, do I say “Do you want a coffee”? Absolutely. But I do think twice [about offering it at work].”
“It’s an exciting time to be a woman… although the pace of change is slow, it is happening,” Judelman said.