Mar 10, 2021
Be big, be bold and be brave
9 mins | 1856 words
By: Jennifer Campbell
Women encouraged to overcome obstacles, fight for their place in boardrooms and amplify the voices of other women
“Use your gender as an asset, not an obstacle.”
Ellie Ardakani, CEO and co-founder of Meta Innovation Technologies, shared that bit of wisdom with more than 125 women who attended a virtual International Women’s Day event.
The event was hosted by Elevate International, which aims to inspire, empower and elevate women and girls locally and globally, and Ardakani was one of five panellists in a discussion moderated by Sonya Shorey, vice-president of marketing and communications at Invest Ottawa.
To kick off the discussion, Shorey shared some facts, building on numbers figures earlier in the morning’s presentations by Marjolaine Hudon, regional vice-president of Ontario North & East at Royal Bank of Canada.
“We know COVID has delivered a divisive blow to our health and global economy,” Shorey said. “Women business leaders, particularly those with intersectional identities, have been disproportionately hit.”
She quoted recent research showing that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s jobs and while women make up 39 percent of global employment, they account for 54 per cent of overall job losses.
“If we fail to take targeted action, global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment tracked that of men in each sector,” she said. “Taking action now to advance gender equality could be valuable, adding $13 trillion to global GDP by 2030, compared with the gender regressive scenario we are facing today.”
Beyond the grim reality, however, she said the crisis creates opportunities for women leaders to use their voices to address gender equality. It was through that lens that a panel discussion, titled Womxn leaders driving economic revolution and recovery, launched.
Women leaving the workforce
Asked about how to curb the issue of women leaving the workforce due to COVID-related domestic pressures, Amy MacLeod, vice-president, corporate affairs and external communications at Seaspan Shipyards, said the fact that 500,000 Canadian women who were working in March 2020 and aren’t working now is “staggering” and “kind of sad.
“It’s a wakeup call for short-term corrective active to stop the bleeding,” she said. “There is no economic recovery without them. As we think about economic recovery as a national priority, we need to think about the role of working women in driving and stimulating that economic recovery and make sure that exodus is arrested.”
Nina Qi, COO of Voyage, a self-driving car startup in Silicon Valley, said what’s good for gender equality is good for the economy.
“Women are shouldering even more of the burdens of unpaid labour and just caretaker duties during the pandemic,” she said. “Our industry has introduced flexible work hours. We’ve be able to show that [they] work. People are equally productive. We need to create the right environment for women to rejoin the workforce, whether that’s continuing to champion equal pay, flexible work schedules, better childcare support.”
Looking at best practices from other countries was the suggestion of Moya Cahill, CEO and co-founder of PanGeo Subsea in St. John’s, Nfld. She said the Norwegians are introducing “game-changing initiatives” to ensure women can get into the workforce and be comfortable balancing family and work.
Attracting and retaining women leaders
Lisa Dolan, vice-president of supply chain strategy at Alom Technologies in Fremont, California, said her jobs don’t seem as exciting as those of her competitors, such as Apple, Google and Facebook and hers require employees be on the production line and work-from-home is impossible.
Given that, she said they work hard to broaden their exposure among women by speaking in grade schools and colleges alike.
“We’re trying to change that perception for girls,” she said. “In supply chain and manufacturing and some of these traditionally male roles, there are tremendous opportunities for women.”
Similarly, McLeod’s company builds ships so again, flexible hours and work-from-home aren’t as possible, but she argues they’re well paid, highly skilled jobs whose proficiencies are transferable and whose hours are time-bound.
“For those who struggle with balance, you go to work and leave at the end of [your shift,]” she said. “There’s wonderful balance. It’s the total package, but we don’t have enough young girls who can see themselves doing this.”
Ellie Ardakani said organizations that advocate for women offer good insight into attraction and retention.
“Women in AI is an organization based in Europe and they have thousands of members,” she said. “This year is the beginning for Ottawa to be part of these efforts to education people about positions in the AI field. One of the other things, especially for Ottawa, is that we’re leaders in terms of startups. You can see AI startups that are coming into the ecosystem, and they are supported by angel investors and VCs to be able to take them to the next level.”
Taking action to build back better
Qi said the technology and venture-capital communities both tend to be very male-dominated and even more so in her field of AI/robotics.
“A study sampled three AI conferences from machine learning and machine vision and found that 88 percent of the researchers were men,” she said
Her company has become bold in trying to fill its roles with women and with the right talent. For roles that can be done remotely, she’s willing to hire people all over the U.S. and she’s even made accommodations for out-of-country hires. Another action: Voyage’s recruiters often don’t look at names on applications.
“We just want to hire folks who demonstrate collaboration and deliver results,” she said. “We are willing to tap experience from all different types of industries. As a smaller company, you always have to find ways to be more competitive and being more flexible in backgrounds and work locations has really given us an edge.”
Dolan’s company hosts on-site manufacturing days as part of its relationship with the National Association of Manufacturers.
“We’re bringing those girls in and showing them [our] fun, hands-on, grassroots, feet-on-the-ground opportunities,” she said.
McLeod pointed out that one positive from the pandemic has been the business case for remote working, which has been made unequivocally.
“There’s nothing left to prove on that front,” she said. “We didn’t instinctively think it was okay to work from home. There were questions about efficiency and productive and output.
She also endorsed Qi’s willingness to search for talent anywhere.
“Technology is allowing us to find folks and enable them to join our organizations wherever they are,” she said. “I do think we’ll see some leaders who will take that and use it to define their brand and then we’ll see a lot of fast followers after that.”
Overcoming stumbling blocks
When it comes to what seem like setbacks, McLeod said she wishes she knew then what she knows now. Many times, she was marginalized or diminished in a meeting and said nothing. She wouldn’t stay silent today.
“Women aren’t putting up with that,” she said. “They are setting the expectation for what they want and what they expect from their workplaces. I’m incredibly inspired by that.”
Cahill says she refuses to acknowledge barriers and instead sees stumbling blocks that come her way as opportunities to strive for increased success.
Ardakani, a woman of colour and an immigrant who speaks with an accent, says she can sometimes feel lonely in the oil and gas space.
“I’m building a business here in North America and [I’m] surrounded by white middle-aged men,” she said. “I look weird to them. But as you work through these feelings, you get more and more comfortable. Sometimes we just need to say ‘I am who I am and this is what I want to do to.’ This is my advice to all women. We have to use our gender as an asset not an obstacle.”
Pushing for executive positions
Just four percent of companies on the benchmark stock index in Canada have a female CEO and DDI’s global leadership forecast found that women account for just 21 percent of early executives. Women in Canada only occupy 17 percent of board seats on TSX-listed companies.
Asked how to move the dial on this, Dolan said that change comes from the top.
“To get more women in the C-Suite, get more women on the board,” she said. “There are advocacy groups such as How Women Lead that are helping prepare women for their seat on the board.”
Cahill said some organizations are leading on this. For example, Exxon Mobil, Husky Energy and Suncor monitor the gender equality in their would-be contractors’ organizations. And McLeod added that publicly traded companies are expected to show up at their AGMs with their gender-equality data outlined.
“The pendulum has swung and we’re starting to see requests in major infrastructure RFPs asking for detail for corporate positions on inclusion. Two or three years ago, in order to be in Microsoft’s supply chain, you needed to provide a certain amount of maternity leave for your employees. That drives change.”
Our experts’ visions for the future:
Ellie Ardakani, CEO and Co-founder, of Meta Innovation Technologies in Ottawa
“I want to say the future has to be inclusive, not that it will be on its own. We as women leaders have the opportunity to drive change, let’s do that.
Moya Cahill, CEO & Co-founder, PanGeo Subsea Inc. in St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
“We’ve come a long way. There’s more work to be done. We have to take the bull by the horns and make it happen. You go, girl, and deliver.”
Lisa Dolan, Vice President, supply chain strategy at Alom Technologies in Fremont, California
“As leaders and women, we need to use our voice and our platforms within our own organizations and our own networks. We need to bring awareness to gender equality, the impact it has on our economies. Tweet, post, go on LinkedIn. I urge everyone to get out there. We need to bring other women up. Get more women on panels like this or panels within your industry.”
Amy MacLeod, Vice President, Corporate Affairs and External Communications, Seaspan in Ottawa and Vancouver
“I love what Ellie said earlier. For the first time in my career, our gender is an asset in the workplace and the numbers don’t support that, but for all of the reasons that we’ve just talked about, there sea change. There is a need to embrace and involve women in business. We need to grab hold of that and set our expectations against that and not be afraid to ask for that. One practical thing we can all do is go back to our organizations and ask the question [about gender equality numbers.] It starts a conversation and creates an expectation that our employees, current and potential, expect us to do more than we are today.”
Nina Qi, COO, Voyage in Silicon Valley, California
“I would encourage everyone to try to support each other as much as possible. There are ways big and small for us to amplify our voices. If a woman is speaking in a meeting, try to amplify her voice. If you’re in a leadership position, ask for gender equality from the top.”
About Elevate International
Elevate International is on a mission to inspire, empower, and elevate women and girls, locally and Globally; to advance women in leadership and economic growth while creating leadership and mentoring programs for young women. The organization is committed to building a world where women have more decision-making opportunities and economic contributions amongst leaders in our society, and girls confidently grow into influential leaders from a young age. As a result, Elevate International works to build thriving communities, much stronger countries and a better world socially, economically and politically.
To learn more, visit www.elevateinternational.ca/