Striving to change the company - 1 woman at a time
January 04, 2001
By Elizabeth Church, The Globe And Mail
2001-01-04 - Every fall Carol McKeen instructs a fresh batch of undergraduate business students at Queen's University in Kingston on the topic of gender in management. Her 12-week course, offered primarily to fourth-year students, is always about three-quarters filled with female faces.
While students listen to her lectures on women in the work force, most are also involved in the annual on-campus recruiting drive. Prof. McKeen says her students often start to ask prospective employers questions they might never have thought of before, such as how many women they have in senior management or the details of work and family policies.
She says the answers they get have shifted more than a few career plans.
"I think I have an impact because their level of awareness is much higher and that is going to affect who they choose," says Prof. McKeen, a chartered accountant by training who began teaching her course in 1994.
"They begin to see that [who they work for] has to be a conscious choice. It has to be a good fit."
Prof. McKeen figures she is changing the workplace -- one woman at a time.
She is not alone.
It might seem like a big leap from one university student to the latest counts on women executives. Still, many of the people who watch those numbers believe that focused incremental changes are one way to bring progress.
It's a trend worth watching in the year ahead. It became a common theme during interviews with a handful of advocates who, like Prof. McKeen, are trying to advance the position of women in the workplace.
"Every woman that gets appointed to a [corporate] board, that is a victory," says Stephanie MacKendrick, the president of Canadian Women in Communication, a group that has made increasing the number of female directors in that industry one of its central goals.
"These are small steps," says Ms. MacKendrick, who has spent a lot of time in the past year asking communications companies why they don't have more or any women in their boardrooms, and offering to assist them in finding qualified female candidates when there are openings.
Many companies, she says, simply have never been challenged on the issue.
"No one has ever said to them, 'Please do better. How can we help you?' "
Ms. MacKendrick says her organization is targeting the boardroom because it believes that who sits on the board will influence the selection of corporate leaders and the entire company in turn.
The group is not expecting miracles just yet. Its current goal is for firms to appoint women to half of all board openings. Ms. MacKendrick says she would like to see at least three women on every corporate board, because then their influence would start to be felt.
At the Conference Board of Canada, Barbara Orser -- who heads the Centre of Excellence for Women's Advancement -- stresses that individual managers must be held accountable for workplace diversity if real change is going to take place.
That means linking compensation to issues such as employee retention and satisfaction. Since the number of women begins to fall off at the middle manager level, focusing on these issues would force individual leaders to address some of the barriers to women's progress, she says.
But she says recent research conducted by the centre has found that only about one third of companies in Canada are tracking issues such as job satisfaction, retention and promotion in terms of gender.
In the current tight labour market, she expects that to change because employers cannot afford to turn off a large portion of their work force.
"I don't think talented, ambitious women feel that it is their role to always break new ground. They are going to look around."
Even Catalyst, the New York based non-profit group known for its massive research projects and its counts of women on boards and in senior posts, has decided to turn its attention to individual women, as well as corporations.
A book called Be Your Own Mentor, scheduled to be released in March, looks at what women can do for themselves to further their career.
"At Catalyst we focused for a long time, more and more, on organizational strategies, what companies can do to make things better," says Susan Black, the organization's Toronto-based vice-president for Canada.
"What has become clear over this decade is that individuals are taking control of their own destiny."
The organization is continuing to look at the big picture, with new research on women lawyers due out early this year and in Canada an update on the census of female directors. But Ms. Black says there also is need for advice at the individual level.
"Women need to be empowered to be proactive," she says. "The book will really focus on women between 25 and 40 and what they can do to make sure they are fulfilled in their professional lives and they are reaching their potential."
At Queen's, Prof. McKeen says that work has to start long before women reach their mid-20s.
She says as early as third year in university, female students are self-selecting out of certain career paths such as finance.
"When you talk to the women about why they are doing this, one of the main reasons they give is 'I want to have a life,' and that usually means 'I want to have a family,' " she says.
"They still see childcare as their personal struggle," she says.
That has to end, she says, if women's position in the workplace is going to change.