Canada can lead the conversation on women’s leadership in the economy

Reposted from the Financial Post:

There’s a sea change in the air. From Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic, our collective assumptions are being called into question about the challenges and opportunities women get to take on in their roles in our economy.

Although more than half of Canadian university graduates are women, the statistics are dire in terms of women leaders in most industries — the Fortune 500 hovering around an average 14% for the past 10 years. To put it in perspective, for every six men one woman is deemed eligible to lead. Gender equality issues are paramount, but we’re just beginning to grasp the business case for having gender parity at the top; especially in entrepreneurship.

So what can we do to steer this conversation toward measurable change and a better, more equitable and prosperous society for all Canadians? Here are some starting points:

Funding women-led ventures Discussions about why funding in general, and venture capital in particular, favours male-founded companies underscore the leading argument about why women are at the helm of fewer companies. According to one U.S. study, less than 13% of women-led ventures receive funding. Regardless of what the reasons are, it makes for poor business strategy.

Women can play a pivotal role here by becoming enablers and investors. There is a severe lack of women’s perspectives in the venture capital and angel investor communities. I know there are scores of successful, powerful women who can step in and change the dynamics by bringing to the equation their mentorship acumen, networks and cheque books.

Syndicates such as sheEO (a group of 10 women angels passionate about supporting the next generation of women-led ventures), and Pique Ventures (with a mandate to empower people, especially women, to be leaders as investors) need to become much more mainstream (Arlene Dickinson, Jennifer Lum – yes, I’m looking at you!)

Optics matter As it stands, women don’t have enough visibility in the upper echelons of leadership in business (and receive plenty of push-back for theirpantsuits elsewhere…)

Individuals and organizations need to make a conscious commitment to an inclusive process that supports gender parity in the hunt for talent. This is neither tokenism, nor a suggestion for fastidious quotas (although that has worked in some nations). One of the most compelling reasons to support this notion is that not tapping into the unique strengths of half the talent pool makes for lower bottom lines, period.

Study after study shows that companies that wish to survive and thrive in this complex, globally connected future would be well advised to include women on their executive teams. Gender-balanced executive committees have a 56% higher operating profit than companies with male-only committees, a McKinsey report, Empowering Women, found. The time to lead conversations around long-internalized biases keeping women from attaining leadership roles is now. And the responsibility for this shift lies with both men and women.

Increasing the number of women on boards, panels and juries is a solid first step toward making gender parity in leadership the norm.

An initiative I hope will catch on in all sectors is ADC’s Let’s Make the Industry 50/50 – with its clarion call for industry organizations and associations to take immediate and measurable action by setting a goal of equal participation for women and men on award show juries, boards of directors, event panels and speaker lineups.

Ecosystems are essential Silicon Valley got to be where it is for one reason alone: The strength of its networks. We need to step up and back micro- and macro- networks in Canada that allow communities to rally behind entrepreneurship and create channels of support between public and private sectors; and in doing so, raise the probability of new business ventures that in turn create jobs and growth.

Startup Canada is one such grassroots, volunteer-run and entrepreneur-led movement that has swept across Canada to give a platform to all entrepreneurs. Get involved as a mentor or mentee, support programs and partnerships, and help raise the entrepreneurship profile and risk-tolerance around funding of new ideas to give them a fighting chance at becoming viable, thriving enterprises. Canadian Women in Technology (CanWIT) is another group women can get involved with to offer their support.

Saadia Muzaffar is a tech-entrepreneur who is passionate about equitable opportunities for her fellow seven billion on Earth. She’s also  founder of TechGirls Canada, leads a Lean In Power Circle, is a Startup Weekend organizer. Connect with her @ThisTechGirl

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