Jocelyn Edmison knows the business world is a bit of a boys’ club.
“They’re all friends of friends of friends, who all worked their way up together,” the president of the Ryerson Women in Leadership Association (WiLA) and Ryerson MBA student said of many male-dominated corporate boards. “We’re still not at that point where enough females are up there to have equality.”
Edmison said that while this social exclusivity is more apparent in some industries like mining, she and her colleagues at WiLA think there’s still a need to discuss the inequalities in women’s representation in corporate leadership. “There’s still that sense that when you walk into a boardroom and it’s all men and you’re the only female, sometimes it can be intimidating, and you can feel like a minority,” she said.
Edmison and WiLA’s concern is merited. More women are graduating from professional programs in Canada than ever before, yet business leadership trends in this country aren’t changing. Women now represent over half of professional school grads, but according to Bloomberg News, they make up only eight of the 226 CEOs of publicly traded Canadian companies.
The global figures are even worse, with women making up only 1.8 per cent, or approximately 55 corporate leaders out of nearly 3,000 public companies worldwide. Trends for corporate board membership are similar, with women “stuck at around nine per cent of corporate board membership” around the world, according to Chris Bart, a researcher at McMaster University’s DeGroote school of business.
Women are entering a corporate workplace where, statistics suggest, there is still a glass ceiling limiting how high they can rise. Despite women making up the majority of university graduates — just over half of Ryerson’s current undergraduate student body is women — they still aren’t being represented in the leadership of Canadian companies.
The discussion about the unequal representation of women in boardrooms was reignited when the Royal Bank of Canada chose Kathleen Taylor, the former chief executive officer of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and a 12-year veteran independent director at the company, as its first female chief executive officer. When she begins work on Jan. 1, Taylor will be one of the key six players in an industry where women make up two-thirds of its employee base yet only a third of its leadership, according to a study by the Canadian Bankers Association.
Students like Hamideh Zakeri worry about their ability to replicate Taylor’s success.
“I think the men still feel they should be more in power and they are very critical about women in the workplace,” said Zakeri, a master of engineering student at Ryerson. “I think it’s something that takes a lot longer to change.”
As a female student in a male-dominated program, Zakeri often finds it difficult to be aggressive and assert herself amongst her male peers.
“I feel like I’m being pushed aside and they prefer to decide on what to do and manage the teamwork by themselves,” she said, adding that she struggles with the idea of leading men.
This is a common hurdle for women trying to enter the business world. A study done by Wells Fargo and released last week revealed that roughly four in 10 affluent women in the U.S. were “not at all” confident about their ability to invest. Investment confidence is important as it reveals women’s faith in their business intuition.
Another study published in 2011 by the European Institute of Leadership and Management showed how half of women admitted to “feelings of self-doubt about their performance and career” whereas only a third of men reported similar feelings.
This crisis of confidence extended to female workers’ willingness to pursue promotions, the study showed. Of those polled, more men answered that they would apply for a job even if they didn’t meet all the requirements.
A number of projects have emerged around Ryerson’s campus attempting to combat the social and professional hurdles many women face entering the business world. The SheEO women’s business incubator, run by the university and the Digital Media Zone, brought together 10 different projects led by women between 18 and 35 for a month-long workshop that in addition to providing mentorship, funding and logistical advice about their businesses, also sought to boost their confidence as young female entrepreneurs.
Sherene Ng, a graduate of Ryerson’s early childhood education program, was one of the 10 women selected. Ng designed a shoe for the visually impaired that scans the wearer’s oncoming walkway and sends vibration alerts when it senses an obstacle. But with minimal business background, and therefore nearly no business confidence, Ng didn’t have all the tools she needed to make her prototype a reality.
The SheEO project helped by providing her with mentorship and a $5000 grant. While at first Ng was thrown by the project’s approach — she described the incubator’s DMZ space as having “colourful pillows all over the floor,” and reminding her of “a kindergarten class” — she was given the opportunity to practise pitching to the project’s affluent donors, like she hopes to eventually do to potential investors.
As for why some women benefit from projects like SheEO, Ng thinks it comes down to confidence.
“A lot of the women I’ve spoken with have feelings of not being able to take risk because they’re fearful of something, some might be because of the intimidation of men,” she said.
Ng, however, thinks the focus on women’s lack of confidence in business might be slightly misplaced.
“A lack of confidence was what I was struggling with, but it wasn’t because I was a woman,” Ng said, instead suggesting that women should be looked at on a case-by-case basis regarding their business savvy, not as a gendered whole.
Despite being at the head of WiLA, an organization geared towards women in business, Edmison still has moments where she feels professional anxiety, moments she doesn’t think her brother, who works in sales, would experience in the same way.
“I’ll look at job descriptions and think I’m not qualified,” she said. “Whereas I don’t think my brother would look at it with as much detail; he’d probably just do it.”
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Ryerson’s best women in biz
Wendy Cukier, Vice-president, research and innovation
A Ryerson professor, researcher and administrator, Cukier stepped in to the role of vice-president of research and innovation in September 2011. Previously the associate dean of academics at the Ted Rogers school of management, Cukier brought a wealth of experience and wide-ranging education to the role, having earned a PhD in management science, an MBA in marketing and information systems, an MA in social and cultural history and a BA in English and history.She’s also been named one of U of T’s 100 alumni who shaped the century and one of 25 transformational Canadians by T the Globe and Mail, La Presse and CTV. “You have to be tenacious,” she says. “The barriers may real, but you can get over them, get around them or go through them.”
Julia Hanigsberg, Vice-president, administration and finance
Hanigsberg was appointed vice-president of administration and finance in October 2010, and has since seen Ryerson grow with the additions of the Mattamy Athletic Centre and the Ryerson Image Centre. Previously the general counsel and secretary of the Ryerson Board of Governors, she also has years of
“Don’t be afraid to take on big jobs and big challenges because you are worried that you will have trouble integrating work and life considerations,” she advises. “You will have trouble doing that integration but it is worth it.” Hanigsberg also advocates for women to help other women, especially in overly competitive,
Janice Fukakusa, Chief administrative officer and chief financial officer, RBC
Janice Fukakusa joined the Royal Bank of Canada in 1985, and currently resides as its chief administrative officer and chief financial officer — responsible for developing the bank’s “strategic direction.” In addition to sitting as the vice-chair of Ryerson’s Board of Governors, Fukakasa serves on organizations like Wellspring Cancer Support, Princess Margaret Hospital and her alma mater, Schulich school of business. In 2007, the Women’s Executive Network awarded her a spot in Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Hall of Fame.
— With files from Sarah Murphy
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on September 25, 2013.