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A little help please: Why mentors matter so much for future female leaders

Tonya Lagrasta Leadership Lab Series Article 3 Hero Image
Tonya Lagrasta is the head of ESG for Colliers Real Estate Management Services in Canada.

When people share the news that they’re about to be married, there’s usually a round of congratulations followed by obsessive discussions about the details: the venue, the engagement ring, the guest list and honeymoon location.

On more than a few occasions, when such an announcement has come from a woman in the various places where I’ve worked, the happy news was also interjected quickly with the assertion that she had no intention of having children anytime soon, or at all.

Whenever this happened, I often wondered if these women were simply worried about being “selected out” of the leadership pipeline if they left those in a position to influence their career growth uncertain about their plans to start a family.

In the male-dominated corporate world, such concerns are understandable. A 2022 McKinsey & Co. survey of 333 companies employing a total of more than 12 million people in the U.S. found only one in four C-suite executives were women and 15 per cent fewer women than men were promoted from entry-level to management positions.

Similar trends persist in the commercial real estate industry where I work. The glass ceiling in this sector is as real and ubiquitous as the cement ones that top many buildings across the country. While women account for close to 40 per cent of the commercial real estate workforce in Canada, the United States and United Kingdom, they occupy only 9 per cent of C-suite roles, according to a 2020 study by the Commercial Real Estate Women Network.

Today, almost 135 years after Anna Bissell of Bissell Homecare Inc., became America’s first female CEO, women in the workplace still need help to get ahead. This despite their advances in academia where – both in Canada and the United States – more women than men have post-secondary degrees.

Women need help from champions: mentors who will give them advice and sponsors with a place at the table who will advocate for their advancement.

My own experience with mentors dates back to my years at York University and Seneca College, when some kind – and wise – individuals urged me to figure out what I was passionate about and then study it. As I built my career, I also built my network of mentors by doing volunteer work.

The power of sponsors
I’ve been fortunate to have had sponsors who have been generous not only with their advice, but also in their efforts to help advance my career. These are people who believed enough in me to use their political and social currency in the organization to recommend me for a certain project or role.

For women in the workplace, the support of mentors and sponsors can really make a difference. But the support of their organization is also critical.

If companies want to build a diverse leadership pipeline that includes every high-potential woman, they need to foster a work environment that recognizes the challenges women face inside and outside of the office. Women are, in general, the primary caregivers for their children and, increasingly, their aging parents. According to Statistics Canada numbers from 2015, women in households with a partner and children in the home on average do 1,710 hours of unpaid household work per year. Men do 1,110 hours.

Women aren’t looking to their employers to change this reality. What they want and need is an acknowledgement of their reality, along with flexibility – either in work hours or location, or both – so they aren’t working constantly under duress, torn between nurturing their careers and caring for their loved ones.

Building trust and flexibility into the workplace will also enable more women to take advantage of educational and professional development opportunities. It always breaks my heart when one of the talented women I’m mentoring tells me she’d love to do a company-sponsored course or program but, with kids to look after, she doesn’t know how she can make it work.

I think employers should find ways to help these women make it work. There is no one-size-fits-all solution but there are plenty of possibilities.

Where to start? I find a place of honesty is always the best launching point. Colliers, for example, acknowledged early on that while they’ve been making progress in reducing gender disparity, there’s still plenty to do. Globally, Colliers has pledged to have a diverse workforce with no less than 40 per cent women overall, and 40 per cent women in leadership roles by 2025.

To advance these goals, Colliers has set up mentorship and professional development programs for women. The company also supports employee resource groups for women and for working parents and caregivers. On International Women’s Day, Brian Rosen, Colliers chief executive officer, shared that women currently represent 41.4 per cent of our employees in Canada, with 42.3 per cent of our senior leaders (manager level and above) being female.

It’s a work in progress and it’s moving in the right direction.

Perhaps one day women won’t feel the need to add a disclaimer about not having kids anytime soon to their wedding announcement and will feel confident making decisions that are right for them and their families.

This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail on April 19, 2023.

Pour plus d’informations, veuillez contacter:

Tonya Lagrasta

Head of ESG

Toronto Downtown

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