Stepping Outside of Your Comfort Zone – Why Me?
January 28, 2022
On behalf of ULI Toronto’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), Committee I’d like to wish you all a safe and Happy New Year!
Welcome to the first WLI Toronto blog! This is a 6-part series that we are running as a pilot project to explore new avenues to share the stories and insights of individual WLI members. We hope these posts will help us move the needle to support the advancement of women within the development industry. I acknowledge there are many other underrepresented groups that require support and advocacy. WLI also strives to be an ally for those other groups but today I will focus on sharing my own experience. Going forward, I will continue to work with WLI to explore other ways to support a greater voice for a wide range of diverse voices.
As a brief introduction, I am an urban planner with experience in land development consulting in Alberta and Ontario. I am part of Metrolinx’s development team, leading an exciting portfolio focused on integrating new GO transit stations with community development. I was born and raised in Ontario and have spent some time living in western Canada and Scotland.
Why me? This is the first question I asked myself when my name was suggested for writing WLI’s first blog post. I wondered if anyone would be interested in what I had to say but reminded myself that if I was being asked to write this, someone was interested. It’s the same question I asked myself when I was approached about serving as a WLI Committee Co-chair almost 2 years ago, “Why me?“. Hence, the inspiration for this post. These opportunities, and many others that I have been fortunate enough to have, are ones that someone else has championed for me. I hope that everyone can be fortunate enough to have allies for them personally and professionally, but it may not always be the case. I would like to take this opportunity to remind all of us (especially myself) to try stepping outside of our own comfort zone whenever possible and be our own advocate. Like writing this post…
The journey to today…
The development industry in the GTA continues to be a male-dominated (primarily white) profession, and while there continue to be many positive efforts supporting gender parity and diversity, there is still a long way to go. Amongst WLI, this is a regular conversation and we are constantly seeking the best ways to support women and better position them for success. There is of course no silver bullet to these issues, but I believe continuing to ask the right questions and engaging in meaningful dialogue is essential for progress. For the majority of my career, I have often found myself to be the only woman, the only person not fully white (I am half Chinese), and the youngest person in a professional setting. Early in my career this made me feel out of place, uncomfortable and unsure of myself – the all too common ‘imposter syndrome’ feeling. It also drove me to prove I belonged ‘in the room’; I tried to assimilate as much as possible and felt like I needed to push for my ideas to be heard.
On one hand, I developed useful skills and tactics that have benefited my career progression, such as extensively preparing for meetings and presentations, and seeking out mentors that exhibited behaviours I admired. On the other, I have concealed some pieces of my identity that I felt did not fit in. These have not necessarily been big things (notwithstanding the next part of this post), but some parts of my personality and bits of my life that I felt would remind people I was different. I don’t believe that anyone should have to hide any part of themselves unless they choose to or to fight for their ideas to be heard to be successful. There are many incredible people, including a great group of women, in our industry with much to offer but do not thrive in a situation where they feel out of place or, worse, are discouraged or continually put down. These dynamics have been exacerbated for many due to the current pandemic. This has set many people back in ways we are only beginning to understand.
Speaking out in these situations is incredibly difficult and I have witnessed many people simply start to retreat and become less engaged, sometimes leading to finding alternative employment. I will admit that I have been hesitant in the past to share any negative professional experiences with an employer. It is counter-intuitive to my career instincts to assimilate. I have also been concerned that my organization and/or its leadership would not implement meaningful change and that I may be perceived as difficult. However, I have learned that there is a fair and professional way to approach and address such experiences in executive leadership. I will continue to use and improve upon this approach, as well as explore ways to be a better ally to a more diverse range of people.
A new chapter…
As some of you may know, my partner and I welcomed our first child, a wonderful baby girl, into our family at the end of September. We are grateful that she is healthy and deliriously happy with our new normal (although some of the delirium may be due to sleep deprivation). Having a daughter, even only a few months old, is already starting to shift my perspective on gender parity and has increased the amount of discussion between my partner and me on this topic. Like most parents, we want her to have every opportunity to do and be anything and anyone that she wants. She was born into a life of incredible privilege, but professional success (should she wish to seek it) will likely still be more challenging in most industries for her. This motivates me more than ever to help drive positive changes.
With only a few months of motherhood under my belt, I don’t have much insight to share on parenting as of yet – I will only say that it is a wonderful, magical and wild journey. I have a newfound respect for all parents, especially those who pursue a career outside of the home. I would however like to share some insight from my experience in planning for and carrying a child. My partner and I were fortunate to be able to make this decision and to have a child, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. With that being said, it was a lonely journey at times because I didn’t feel comfortable sharing it professionally until we were close to actually having a child. I recognize that my insecurity played a large part in this, but I don’t know very many women who have openly discussed family planning in professional circles and even fewer men that have. Few men I have encountered professionally mention their family or take much time off for parenting reasons, and with men continuing to dominate the development industry, this means it is not a topic that comes up often.
I anticipate the next chapter of my life to be quite different as I continue to navigate my career and leadership position, as well as motherhood. I am very fortunate to have a wonderful partner and a supportive leader at my organization, which I know will make it a much more enjoyable transition. At present, I love being able to spend so much time with my daughter and watch her grow at what feels like the speed of light. I also still love reading up on current development and planning news (Urban Toronto, NRU, Renx, etc.), checking in on my work projects and team, and staying engaged with ULI. Remaining connected to the development industry is incredibly important for me. I plan to hit the ground running when I return to work and show my daughter what it looks like to have a family and a fulfilling career. I still have a million questions around how we will balance our new family life, but for now, I’m trying to focus on the present and enjoy every moment.
I truly enjoy working in the development industry and appreciate the unique opportunities I have had to date, but believe we can always do better to make it a more inclusive environment. Even simple things can go a long way such as ensuring everyone ‘in the room’ has had an opportunity to speak and ensuring there is a diversity of people and thought at every table (meetings, panels, management teams, etc.). I feel a sense of responsibility to support others in their career progression and to help remove some of the barriers I have faced. I am constantly striving to strike a balance between driving positive change in the context of well-established norms and working within the industry to help it evolve. For instance, I strive to make the composition and engagement of my own team more inclusive and advise the same to ULI programming. Luckily, I have found many allies in the development industry and at WLI, and hope that by sharing some of my insights, I have inspired at least one other person to step a bit more outside of their comfort zone.
The WLI Community…
WLI is an amazing network comprised of intelligent, successful and supportive women, and I am humbled and grateful to be a part of it. Before signing off, I’d like to highlight some of the great programming that WLI is working on for the upcoming year, I hope many of you are able to participate and find it valuable.
- Championship Team (February 2022 nominations & June 2022 event) – focused on spotlighting influential women in Toronto real estate by annually (1) selecting a group of women who exhibit leadership in real estate development, land use and city-building; and (2) recognizing them formally at the annual WLI reception. Committed to identifying a growing number of women who are paving the way forward for future women leaders in the industry.
- Allies in Action (March 2022 event) – committed to proactively advancing the inclusion of women and minority groups in the real estate and land development industry. This involves making strides, big and small, to shine a brighter light on women’s contribution to the real estate and development industry.
- WLI Reset (April 2022 event) – focused on addressing systemic barriers that are faced by women and marginalized people in accessing opportunities, work/life balance, equitable economic benefit, and inclusive agency to share and steward the cities we live in.
- ULI-WLI Mentorship (January 2022 program kick-off) – focused on achieving the mission of WLI and that of ULI Toronto. Each year, the mentorship program aims to provide a high-quality, safe and inclusive mentorship environment governed by trust and open communication for ULI Toronto members, reflective of the diversity of our city.
- WLI Communications (year-round)– creating and refining digital content for WLI programs, focused on delivering a high-quality podcast – called Conversations with WLI – throughout the year and the new WLI blog, check back in February for blog post #2!
Learn more about WLI Toronto toronto.uli.org/programs/wli and watch our video messages from past WLI Champions.
These are very challenging times for many of us, not the least of which is continuing to support one another and build meaningful connections. If anyone would like to reach out and have a conversation with me I would love the opportunity to virtually meet new people or re-engage with anyone I have already had the pleasure to meet (send me a note: LinkedIn – Meghan Wong).
Thank you all for reading and for your support of WLI initiatives.
Co-Chair, Women’s Leadership Initiative