Career women in the 21st century
Elizabeth Plank, Senior Editor at Mic.com, who was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30, was in Montréal on January 12th to give a conference at CREW M, an association that promotes the advancement of women in commercial real estate. She sat down with Maude Lavoie, a Senior Manager in Assurance with Richter, and Stéphanie Lincourt, also a Senior Manager in Assurance with the firm, in addition to being the treasurer of CREW M. They tackled the importance of women’s business networks, the challenges that career women face, work/life balance and Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House.
Why are women’s business networks such as CREW M or l’Effet A important today?
Stéphanie Lincourt (SL): I joined CREW M six years ago and have been a Board member since 2014. I really saw my career take off. CREW M gave me a push, allowed me to gain credibility and provided the opportunity for me to meet key players in the commercial real estate sector. I forged ties with female and male association members. Now, when I go to an event I know people who work in this sector. In a sense, it’s a foot in the door that lets me get over my initial shyness. Also, the association encourages mentorships among women rather than competition among its members. These relationships were a real boost for my career. I never would have applied for a Board position if the outgoing Chair did not encourage me by saying: “It’s good for your career, it’s good for Richter, but most of all, it’s good for you.” That’s when I spoke to Maude [Lavoie].
Maude Lavoie (ML): Stéphanie encouraged me to join CREW M four years ago. I have been a member of the Forums Committee, which organizes CREW M events, since last year. This has allowed me to broaden my network of contacts and get to know the Board members. You build ties that help you to make your mark with the help of your network. This year, I also took part in l’Effet A, which aims to promote women’s career ambitions. Our challenge was to create a think-tank to re-develop a work model that would enable women to be promoted to executive positions quicker. I am extremely shy, but l’Effet A helped me to become more assertive and to take my rightful place. For example, I was entitled to have a closed office, but I didn’t ask for one. I now tell myself that I’m at a point in my career when having a closed office is important. The way that people look at me has changed and I now have more credibility.
Elizabeth Plank (EP): Maude, it’s great to see that you were encouraged by Stéphanie, who was encouraged by someone else. In my opinion, that’s what is great about these business networks. We know what it means to be a woman with no network or what it’s like to lack confidence at times. In New York, I was surprised to discover a network of women working in media and technology. I was welcomed by women in their forties, who had more career experience than I did. They gave me lots of advice. It seems to me that Maude’s example of asking for a closed office is a metaphor that could apply to many different things. In my case, it was the first time that I was on television. I told myself that there surely were people who were better equipped than me. One of my mentors then told me: “You know who would never say that? A man. Go!” Ideally, we would live in a world where we didn’t need to be pushed. Nowadays, however, these women’s business networks are vital.
Is it harder for women to network today?
SL: Whether you like it or not, when you walk into a meeting with a client, men will often talk about sports. It’s harder for a woman to become part of the discussion that will lead to a business conversation. When you’re with a group of women, it’s easier to be part of the conversation since the topics often tend to vary more, with people often talking about current events, for example. When you are able to contribute to the conversation right from the start, this changes the
networking dynamic completely.
ML: If you get used to taking part in these conversations, it can open doors for you. There is still sometimes a boys’ club culture in business and it can be hard to fit in. But if you don’t take your place, you’ll miss opportunities.
There is still sometimes a boys’ club culture in business and it can be hard to fit in. But if you don’t take your place, you’ll miss opportunities.
EP: Something that I found really helpful was the way that other women introduced me. Women sometimes hesitate to toot their own horns. Men, on the other hand, may have less of a tendency to hesitate. Today, I try to highlight my friends’ accomplishments in networking situations. Being introduced by someone is so helpful; people come to talk to you and ask questions. This leads to business conversations much more quickly.
SL: In a sense, this comes back to the mentoring and support-based culture that I referred to when talking about CREW M. You build a network of people who talk about you and what you do, about business opportunities. CREW M is strongly committed to fostering the development and leadership skills of its members, and long-time members help to integrate people who are joining. After attending a few events, you have a point of reference which gives you self-confidence. From then on, networking is easy. CREW M was a turning point in my career. I established my credibility in the marketplace, I developed a solid network of contacts and I get advice from mentors regarding management and leadership issues, as well as much more. It’s very rewarding!
EP: We can also build internal support networks. At Mic.com, we created an email chain among women working for the company for that very purpose two years ago. At the time, there was no place where we could speak in private. I remember taking the elevator one day with a colleague who had just started with the company. She had tears in her eyes because she had the impression that nobody listened when she spoke but that her ideas were then being repeated by her male colleagues without giving her any credit. I realized that I was experiencing the same thing. We didn’t want this type of behaviour to set in so we organized a dinner for women and set up an email chain so that we could discuss this type of problem. The changes were immediate because we made our colleagues aware of the situation and began defending one another. There recently was an incident where a colleague was behaving inappropriately. We realized that many women in the office were affected. We were able to discuss the problem and to find solutions.
SL: We also have initiatives at Richter to promote women’s leadership. Women partners organize specific events for female personnel as well as focus groups to discuss matters of concern to us.
What specific challenges did you have to overcome as women in the business community?
SL: Inappropriate comments. At first, you don’t take it seriously and make light of the comment. But sometimes people go too far. How should you manage the situation? I think that it is important for women not to let others get the best of them and to have professional boundaries.
EP: This is also men’s responsibility. Men should ask themselves whether they are making someone else uncomfortable. Things became much easier for me when I got a boyfriend. But why? People leave me alone because I am “with” somebody? I would like to be respected for who I am, regardless who I’m with.
ML: Elizabeth, you talked about “positive sexism” in your conference. In other words, being asked to do something because you’re a woman. Of course, at first it’s flattering to be asked to take notes during a meeting because we’re supposedly the best. We won’t see that we are being asked to do this because we are women and that this can prevent us from playing an active role in the meeting or conference. This is also true for other things, such as booking a room, making a restaurant reservation, organizing documentation, etc. It is important to be aware of this phenomenon and refuse to take part in it. As a general rule, women are often their own worst enemy. We are less confident in our own abilities and often second-guess ourselves. We wonder whether we are able to do something when, more often than not, a man will just go for it. And the risk is that we might miss out on opportunities. While we are mulling things over someone else has already seized the opportunity. We have to learn to trust ourselves more.
How to promote women’s advancement to executive positions?
SL: Richter is very aware of the fact that more women partners are needed because women provide a different perspective and that different visions are needed to do great things! In the professional world in general, whether it be in accounting or law firms, in Canada or the U.S., there are many female managers or senior managers, but relatively few partners are women. What is preventing women from reaching this level? Many wonder whether they want to manage all these responsibilities with a family. In order to encourage women to aim for the top, you need to accept difference and the fact that they can do the job but according to a different schedule. In other words, you need to stop looking at how much time they spend at the office and how many hours they have billed. Instead, you should look at their different contributions to management and in dealing with clients, as well as the visibility that they provide for their firm.
In the professional world in general, whether it be in accounting or law firms, in Canada or the U.S., there are many female managers or senior managers, but relatively few partners are women. What is preventing women from reaching this level?
ML: Was the client satisfied even though you left at 4 p.m. to pick up your child from daycare or for personal reasons? Have you always given your colleagues what they asked for? If you forget the hours and look at the work delivered to clients, everyone is happy.
EP: There is one particular study that shows that female employees with children are viewed the most negatively compared to women without children, men without children and men with children. There really is discrimination because the same behaviour will be viewed differently. For example, if a man leaves work early to go to his child’s baseball game, this shows that he is a good father. But if a mother has to do the same thing, there is a very real risk that she will be criticized for neglecting her work. Yet, women with children are the best employees because they manage
their time extremely well.
ML: Recently, a friend of mine was being interviewed for a position. She was asked personal questions like: Are you married? Do you want children? In how many years? Of course, an employer has no right to ask this type of question but my friend was stunned and didn’t know what to say. This clearly is a form of discrimination. Do you answer honestly or hide the fact that you would like to have children?
EP: This makes me think about the debate about freezing one’s eggs. Large U.S. companies such as Amazon and Apple give female employees and managers the opportunity to freeze their eggs in order to have children later. It’s a process that can cost up to $15,000. Instead of spending all that money on this type of program, why not use it to create working conditions that are conducive to work/life balance, such as daycare centres near the workplace?
To have a successful career, do women today need to “act like men”?
ML: I think that we need to take our rightful place and help one another. This is how we will bring about the changes that we want to see. We don’t want to act like a man. We must continue to play our role and be true to our values.
SL: Very typically, female leaders do not want to change their core values. I want to improve but I don’t want to change my values to become someone who I am not. Maybe this will slow down women who are aiming for the top but we are bit more patient and want to get there the right way, while being true to our values and our convictions.
EP: I don’t think that women should be more like men. On the contrary, men should be more like women. In my opinion, women have many of the traits that society needs. It’s important to talk about confidence: one on one, on a micro level, it works. But this won’t resolve the larger issue, which is the fact that we have created a man’s world—for men—that works for men but not for us. This man’s world does not necessarily benefit society as a whole. Just think back to the economic crisis in 2008. People never talk about this crisis from a gender perspective but men are the ones who put us in this situation. I often ask myself this: if the bank executives had been women, would they have taken the same risks? I don’t think so.
Just think back to the economic crisis in 2008. People never talk about this crisis from a gender perspective but men are the ones who put us in this situation. I often ask myself this: if the bank executives had been women, would they have taken the same risks?
SL: Above all else, it is important to value diversity because it enhances a working environment. But to do so you need to accept difference and this does not come naturally. From our earliest school days, we were raised with a model of success in mind. It is important to highlight and use each person’s strengths. Of course, this is idealistic. The real challenge is putting this idea into practice in our work environment.
Can Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House have an impact on women’s place in society?
EP: Absolutely! If you think about the last eight years, you see that Barack Obama’s presidency created a great deal of interest in racism and racial injustice in the U.S. We all saw those pictures of wide-eyed Afro-American boys meeting the President of the United States. It gives me goose bumps. I believe that seeing a black President of the United States on television every day has a profound impact on people’s perceptions. And perception is reality. At the same time, the nomination race under way shows how women in politics are treated in the media. Hillary Clinton is being treated better than in 2008. But sexism still exists and there still are people who will not vote for her simply because she is a woman.