By: Ann-Marie Reddy, VP, Sales – West, LGM Financial Services
From March 15-18, students, faculty members, and leaders from across the nation gathered at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise in Banff, Alberta to celebrate the 6th annual Network of Empowered Women (NEW) conference. Organized by students from the University of Alberta, the event engages more than 100 students, all of whom go through an application process to attend the event. Delegates are presented with opportunities for personal and professional growth, by connecting with leaders from various disciplines, and participating in thoughtful discourse around female empowerment.
I returned to the conference as a speaker for the third time to share my thoughts on the 2018 conference theme, ‘Embrace your voice and let it echo.’ Together with my good friend Lisa Munro, Senior Director of Corporate Partnerships at the Oilers Entertainment Group, we talked about the importance of risk taking, and how self-awareness can raise your voice. For those of you in need of a refresher, I’ve put together a quick summary of our discussion.
Risk has many interpretations
Particularly within the professional work environment, I’ve observed that men and women often comprehend risk in different ways. Generally, men view risk from a quantitative or physical standpoint – for example, asking for that raise or securing a seat at the table. On the other hand, women understand risk as stemming from something more interpersonal. From my own experience, speaking up and voicing my opinion comes to mind. When Lisa and I posed this question to the primarily female conference delegates, it became clear that these examples really resonated as being associated with risk.
An all-too-familiar concern among women is how we’re perceived by others, which implies what behaviours we feel require risk-taking. If we stand too strongly by our opinions or are too straightforward in our demands, we’re labelled as aggressive. If we haven’t submitted ourselves entirely to our careers because of priorities outside of the workplace, we’re seen as too emotionally unreliable. There’s no wonder that when assessing the risk of a certain behaviour or action, we often find ourselves enacting an internal dialogue that essentially questions our every move. “Will I be taken seriously if I propose this idea? Maybe it’s a bit outrageous. I should watch my tone of voice too. Maybe I should just keep my head down and do my work – the results will speak for itself.”
The latter thought is known as the ‘Cinderella fantasy’ – a common assumption among women that if they just focus on completing their tasks and producing quality work, someone is bound to notice them eventually. Lisa and I advise against this mindset – women need to become acquainted with failure and learn how to take ownership of their ideas. They need to realize that any challenges made towards an idea they’ve proposed is not necessarily a challenge against their character. Deviating from the Cinderella fantasy mindset, no matter how slight, will enable women to become more comfortable with taking risks.
Acknowledging our unconscious biases
All of us have preferences. There are cuisines we enjoy, cars we like to drive, and music we prefer to listen to. Our predispositions are an outcome of our upbringing, surroundings, social circles, and our lived experiences, and as a result, are always at play whether we realize it or not. This remains true in the workplace.
Consider a promotion is at stake at your company, and you’ve been tasked with creating a shortlist of potential employees for the opportunity. With no overt intention of exercising our biases, many of us will be inclined to consider the individuals that embody certain traits that are common among associate- or senior-level employees – such as leadership qualities, expert knowledge or skillset, or perhaps even a particular gender.
Without a doubt, the working-mother figure is more prevalent today than she was five decades ago. In 2017, 68.1 percent of women had children under the age of six while working full-time, compared to the 31.5 percent in 1976. However, that’s not to say that women no longer bear the challenge of sustaining a healthy work-life balance. Family responsibilities are always competing for attention, and as a result, women are more likely to curb their own ambitions to look after their family. In fact, among the top 100 companies in Canada, women hold only 42 out of the 526 C-level positions (for instance, CEO, CFO, CMO, CTO), and when it comes to wage equality for similar work, Canada only ranks 46th out of 144 countries evaluated.
Get uncomfortable with being comfortable
If there’s one thing I’d like women to keep in mind as they navigate their fear of risk, it’s just that. If you’re not feeling challenged or stimulated every day at work, you’re just going through the motions. Perhaps you’ve reached a level of complacency, which may mean you’re letting prime opportunities for personal and professional growth pass you by.
Find a mentor
A tangible action item, no doubt, but one that remains difficult to achieve considering the pool of C-level women is lacking in comparison to men. Finding a mentor is more than getting someone to say ‘yes’ to grabbing a coffee with you. It’s like any friendship or professional relationship – there has to be sense of chemistry, trust, and value for both parties involved. A mentor will typically hold more years of professional experience in their back pocket, and can be exemplary of where you envision yourself in the future – perhaps as a female entrepreneur, or a woman in leadership at a large corporate company. They can also be your sounding board, supporting you through trying times and offering you feedback as you make your mark in the professional world.
Manage people’s perceptions of you
I should clarify that this is not to encourage you to be manipulative. Instead, know that it is within your control to make the people around you view you in the light you wish to be seen in – as capable; as a leader; as a valuable asset to any work environment. In the same vein, if the feedback you’re receiving implies that you’re coming across as arrogant or rude, the onus is on you to resolve these negative perceptions.
Possessing a sense of self-awareness can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a nagging concern with how others view you can hinder opportunities for development. At the other end, being sensitive to these perceptions can inform the behavioural changes you need to make to grow, and to locate a certain level of comfort with taking risks.