Less Talk, More Walk: Empowering Women Requires Bold Actions
Empowering women requires shifting the lens from women to dominant systems, cultural norms, and institutional frameworks. Empowering women in leadership and finance should not be a mere aspiration; it should be an imperative to reconfigure systems that perpetuate barriers and fail to hold organizations accountable for lack of progress. The onus can no longer be on women to individually – and collectively – shoulder the fight for gender equity.
How Canada Can Do Better at Empowering Women
We need to recalibrate the gears of power and privilege and take systemic reform seriously. In this fight for gender equity, there’s no room for complacency or half-hearted measures. We must be unrelenting when it comes to challenging the status quo and addressing outdated and performative policies. This work requires brave dialogues and compassionate leadership that is led by integrity, accountability, presence, authenticity, and dignity.1 Canada needs less talk and more walk; we need bold actions.
1. Move Beyond the Business Case for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI).
Moving beyond the business case for EDI isn’t just a trend, it’s an imperative. Research demonstrates that diversity increases success and profits.2 3 4 Yet, Canadian companies continue to stall in their implementation of measurable EDI initiatives. The reality is that EDI should embody a concept that challenges the status quo, reshapes power dynamics, and dismantles systemic barriers. Simply hiring from a diverse pool of candidates will not automatically produce greater profits, especially if those candidates are not being supported or given a seat at decision-making tables.
“Simply hiring from a diverse pool of candidates will not automatically produce greater profits, especially if those candidates are not being supported or given a seat at decision-making tables.”
A mindset that prioritizes EDI demands a shift away from superficial diversity quotas, tokenism, and performative gestures that produce no measurable impact. An authentic approach to EDI centers learning and an unwavering dedication to creating a truly inclusive and diverse workplace where everyone can contribute meaningfully to an organization’s mission. We need workplaces where organizations have policies, spaces, and cultures where employees thrive, not regardless of their background, but because of their background and experiences. Equity, diversity, and inclusion are not just a way to improve profitability or simple buzzwords, they are essential pillars of success for any organization.
2. Implement Equal Pay and Transparent Compensation Practices.
The walls of secrecy far too often shroud compensation decisions. It is time to address the issue. There should be no more tiptoeing around the problem or making small and insignificant changes. Every employee should have full visibility of salary pay bands and the factors that influence remuneration.
“Every employee should have full visibility of salary pay bands and the factors that influence remuneration.”
The time for compensation transparency is now and it is desperately needed to hold organizations accountable and to expose any gender, racial, or any other biases that hide within compensation practices. Changing compensation practices demands the implementation of objective and inclusive metrics for performance evaluations where everyone is assessed without subjective biases. We need leaders willing to take bold actions to pave the way for a future where equal pay and transparent compensation practices are not just lofty dreams, but concrete realities.
3. Sponsors Need to Address Coded Biases.
The world of finance sometimes uses language that perpetuates biases and stereotypes which impedes the ambition of women and equity-deserving groups from attaining leadership positions. These coded phrases in promotion discussions typically go unnoticed and too often are unquestioned, but their intentions are clear: to perpetuate a subjective and unquantifiable reason for not moving forward with a particular candidate.
“Sponsors need to identify and highlight any emotionally biased and gendered language.”
Some examples include the all too common “She’s too emotional,“ They need to be more likable,” and the incredibly problematic “She is not a good fit”. This notion of not being a good fit assumes a covert meaning and silently insinuates “She’s not like us.”5 The burden of tackling this linguistic labyrinth needs to be addressed by everyone, but especially sponsors, and most critically during promotion discussions. These phrases need to be questioned, unpacked, and dismantled. Sponsors need to identify and highlight any emotionally biased and gendered language, encourage their peers to set the right tone during promotion discussions, and prioritize the job description and objective qualifications over subjective factors. It is only through recognizing these problematic coded phrases and actively addressing them that we can begin to shift mindsets and cultures.
4. Implement Guilt-Free Work-Life Balance Initiatives.
We need workplace cultures where time off is encouraged, supported at all levels, and truly guilt-free. WCM’s research within the Canadian financial sector demonstrates that financial considerations are the number one barrier to taking a full duration of parental leave for men. For women, the number one barrier is concerns around a delay in career advancement. Organizations need to prioritize work-life balance for all employees, regardless of whether they are a parent or not. Everyone deserves flexibility and autonomy.
“Financial considerations are the number one barrier to taking a full duration of parental leave for men. For women, the number one barrier is concerns around a delay in career advancement.”
In another WCM report, we also found that 75% of survey respondents said working from home allowed them to better balance their work and personal lives, and respondents prefer to choose their work locations based on their professional and personal responsibilities and activities. Yet, boundaries are being blurred. We know professionals are working longer hours and taking fewer breaks compared to when they are in the office. Ultimately, this research exposes the problematic mindset that productivity is directly tied to the number of hours worked, and always being “on” or available.
“Let’s eradicate the expectation of being constantly available and instead, respect employees’ personal boundaries.”
We need to move away from the “ideal worker norm” that defaults to a normative expectation that workers have no other demands or responsibilities to attend to and that they can (and wish to) devote themselves entirely and single-mindedly to their jobs. This concept is not only far from reality, but it is also unsustainable and hinders retention, especially as work-life norms, roles, and responsibilities shift. Instead, let’s move our perspective towards output and impact, and truly support employees through flexible schedules. Let’s eradicate the expectation of being constantly available and instead, respect employees’ personal boundaries. We can start by modeling this behavior at the senior level. Guilt-free work-life balance is a crucial step toward liberation from a workplace culture that has normalized burnout, anxiety, and guilt.
5. Mobilize Allies in Empowering Women.
Passivity is the downfall of allyship, and as such, there can be no such thing as a passive ally. Allyship demands actively educating oneself and others on privilege, bias, and the experiences of marginalized groups. Cisgender white men and women in leadership roles must recognize their positions of power and the unique opportunity – and responsibility – that comes with holding such roles. Being impactful allies means wielding power to advocate for and uplift Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) women, gender-diverse folks, and equity-deserving groups.
“Those in privileged roles must use their influence to re-imagine policies, challenge discriminatory and biased practices, and amplify marginalized voices.”
Those in privileged roles must use their influence to re-imagine policies, challenge discriminatory and biased practices, and amplify marginalized voices. Allies have to be willing to confront their own discomfort and foster genuine partnerships and collaboration with those who face systemic injustice. We need to collectively work towards a redefined narrative of what it means to be a leader where leadership is synonymous with allyship, compassion, advocacy, and an unrelenting bravery to stand up for marginalized employees.
6. Harness the Power of Data Collection.
It’s also time to move beyond surface-level diversity metrics and adopt an intersectional approach to data collection that encapsulates the nuanced realities faced by women and gender-diverse individuals in the workplace. Collecting disaggregated data across various categories such as race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, and socio-economic background can give clear insights into pay gaps, promotion rates, and opportunities for advancement.
“Data can show an organization where structural inequities lie and can help them to formulate data-driven solutions.”
Data can show an organization where structural inequities lie and can help them to formulate data-driven solutions. Through data collection, we can also develop robust mechanisms for accountability. Accountability means tackling the issues head-on and not surrendering until the problems are addressed. It requires dismantling the fear of being scrutinized and embracing the discomfort that comes with sharing data for the betterment of the organization’s future. Setting clear goals and publicly disclosing progress and outcomes is the first step toward a future where comprehensive data collection and vigorous accountability become an intrinsic part of every Canadian organization.
Canada Must Continue Empowering Women the Right Way
Empowering women in leadership and finance requires a robust attitude toward addressing the barriers, systems, and policies that hold them back. We need to operate in a way that lets women and equity-deserving professionals in finance know they belong in the workplace – not as a way to drive profits or to check a diversity box, but because it is the right approach for a more just society for everyone. It is not enough to talk the talk. We must walk the walk by challenging cultural norms, holding organizations accountable, and reconfiguring dominant systems. The fight for women’s success and empowerment is not a sprint; it is a marathon that requires bold conversations, actions, and leadership fueled by unrelenting honesty, reliability, and authenticity.
1 Emirza, S., Compassion and Diversity: A Conceptual Analysis of the Role of Compassionate Leadership in Fostering Inclusion; and Cruz, M., Fong-Olivares, Y. and Davi, W.C., Brave Dialogues: An Essential Leadership Practice to Foster Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Organizations in Marque, J. & Dhiman, S. (Eds.), (2022), Leading With Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Approaches, Practices and Cases for Integral Leadership Strategy
2 McKinsey & Company (2018) Delivering through diversity: https://www.mckinsey.com/capab...
3 Financial Times and Invesco (N.D.) Power of the people: how workforce diversity can boost the bottom line: https://www.ft.com/partnercont...
4 World Economic Forum (2019) The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming: https://www.weforum.org/agenda...
5 Dawn Hudson, Cie Nicholson, Mitzi Short, Katie Lacey, Lori Tauber Marcus and Angelique Bellmer Krembs. You Should Smile More: How to Dismantle Gender Bias in the Workplace. City Point Press, 2022.