Qudsia Ahmed
President of the Board of Directors - Young Women in Business
Part of the Spotlight on Women in the Future Economy

Getting Women on Boards: Focus on Workplace Inclusivity Instead of Quotas

Takeaways

  1. Instead of establishing quotas in the workplace, we should focus on making the work environment more inclusive and our investments more accessible to women.
  2. Young women’s first five to eight years in their careers are crucial, and that is where they need support, mentorship and capacity building.
  3. We need to move towards gender neutrality, and continuing to segregate the genders and their priorities will hinder our progress. Men and women both provide valuable contributions to this discussion.

Action

The government needs to hold itself accountable to specific targets around gender equality within a reasonable timeframe. It also needs to better communicate the financing mechanisms that will lead to change on the ground and in the boardrooms.


Why is there still a glass ceiling for women when it comes to leadership positions in Canada? What are the tangible benefits of breaking that glass ceiling in companies?

At the education level, there really is no difference between men and women. Actually, over 50% of university graduates are women, so you do not see any inequality when young women graduate from university. I personally did not really see a glass ceiling until recently when I stepped into a director role. The issues I see contributing to this are a lack of role models and a lack of workplace flexibility for young women who might want to start a family while continuing their careers. Female entrepreneurs encounter a glass ceiling when it comes to access to growth capital or resources to grow their business, especially in the early stages.

“The issues I see are a lack of role models and a lack of workplace flexibility for young women who might want to start a family while continuing their careers.”

Women’s representation on boards is directly tied to the bottom line and many studies show that there is an over 60% increase in the ROI and an over 40% increase in sales in organizations with higher percentages of women on their boards. Women are the primary decision makers of a household, so when we are looking at products and services, women are driving a lot of decisions from furniture to internet. So an organization that cannot connect to the needs of women is at a true disadvantage.


What are the major challenges of being a young female entrepreneur or businessperson in Canada? What can government, the private sector and universities do to make business a level playing field for everyone?

We have to embed diversity strategies across governments, industry and other actors. When looking to recruit, I may typically work through referrals. Even if I were to hire somebody, I would first think, “who do I know that knows somebody that is going to be the right fit for the job?” That is a natural approach, but we have to change some of these models to allow more diversity at all levels from the ground up. When I look at an applicant pool and I see 80% male applicants and 20% female applicants, that tells me there is a problem right there and maybe we need to change people’s access to opportunities.

“Female entrepreneurs encounter a glass ceiling when it comes to access to growth capital or resources to grow their business, especially in the early stages.”

I do not believe in quotas, but workplaces can create more inclusive environments for women, by increasing flexibility, for example. So, for a 500-person company, there should be a daycare on campus where working mothers are able to drop their kids off and not worry about driving two hours before they can get into the office. These additional stressors in our daily lives lead some women to self-exclude from opportunities.

“There should be more accelerators or venture capitalists that try to reach out to women-led businesses.”

If we are looking at entrepreneurs, there should be more accelerators or venture capitalists that try to reach out to women-led businesses. Often, I see organizations like the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE), which sponsor women businesses and women entrepreneurs. But, why do we have to create separate organizations to champion women? Why can’t normal accelerators and venture capitalists consider these issues at the outset? Actually, we need to achieve gender neutrality. The more we continue to highlight and segregate genders, the more we will propel this problem.


What is the mission of Young Women in Business?

Young Women in Business is a 10-year-old grassroots organization that aims to create a community where all young women can reach their fullest potential, both on a personal level and on a professional development level. When women find like-minded women, they are not just motivated professionally but they also have a community that they can turn to. We provide those types of opportunities through standalone events, mentorship programs, an annual conference and chapters across Canada. We also used to run an entrepreneurship program a few years ago and have seven university chapters.

“There is an over 60% increase in the ROI and an over 40% increase in sales in organizations with higher percentages of women on their boards.”

Young women face different challenges than women who are already established in their careers. If we just look at the landscape of organizations that support this cause across Canada, you will find many organizations that are targeted towards women who are already successful, such as the Women’s Executive Network (WXN), the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, the Minerva Foundation and others. There are many organizations that support and champion women to win the award for Top 40 Under 40 or to get funding for businesses that already have $500,000 in annual income. So, when we started on our journey with Young Women in Business, a flood of young women came forward and sought help. We have grown completely organically; we do not do any marketing to start a new chapter. For young women, the first five to eight years of their career are tremendously crucial. So, if women do not know how to navigate those early years, if they do not know how to negotiate their salary or how to apply for the next promotion, it will lead to a leaky talent pipeline to move from middle management to senior management to executive positions.


What role should men play in moving the dial on gender equality in business?

The first part is awareness. Maybe a lot of men are not aware of the impact gender equality has. Many years ago when we started, men were not part of the organization and we never asked ourselves that question. But then we started to consciously invite male leaders to speak at our events to open that conversation up. Young men started asking to be part of our events or to be part of some of these programs. So, we had to ask ourselves why we had created this barrier in the first place. We opened it up and now, we have male volunteers, speakers, mentors and even a male board advisor. I do not see enough organizations doing this, though. I have been to many events and heard many women speak on all-women panels, so I think that does need to change.

The second piece is about action. Men can start to question gender biases when they do their decision-making or create their strategies.


If you had three minutes with the Prime Minister, what would be your call to action and why?

My call to action would be to continue his gender equality advocacy because that is much needed across both genders: male and female. Secondly, I would ask him for more tangible action plans that show us how government is moving the dial on specific targets. I do not believe in the 50/50 quota but if we are at 15% women on boards today, how can we get to 20% women on boards in 5 or 10 years? How can we double that figure to 30% of 40% by 2050? I would like this discussion to be an ongoing item that we can talk about from year-to-year or from Prime Minister to Prime Minister, just like we do with our infrastructure and development planning.

“We need to achieve gender neutrality. The more we continue to highlight and segregate genders, the more we will propel this problem.”

Moreover, I would ask the Prime Minister to establish clear and transparent communication channels between his programs and women’s organizations or women in business. I lead an organization for young women and I cannot easily find out about grants that are applicable to us, which often go unused. When I look at some programs aimed at assisting women to get on boards or women to develop capacities, they might cost $2,000 and upward. How can I as a woman get funding to be a part of those programs if my employer will not pay for it? I really would like to see more tangible actions on how women and organizations can move forward financially.