Why women’s voices matter

I recently attended a talk by the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only woman Prime Minister. The talk was called, “Women’s Voices: What difference do they make?” It was about women’s unique life experiences and the consequences of ignoring women’s perspectives in politics, business and media.

I had never heard Campbell speak before, so I was eager to attend. I was disappointed to see that few Vancouverites felt the same way. Despite Vancouver’s population of over 600,000 people, the auditorium at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre was only half full. To be fair, the event was not effectively promoted. Nonetheless, I was dismayed to see poor attendance for a talk about the importance of women’s voices.

But I digress.

Campbell is a Conservative and so it won’t surprise you that I didn’t agree with everything said at the talk. It did, however, give me a lot to think about.

Let’s start with where Campbell and I agree. The thesis of the talk was that women’s perspectives are vital. Vital to the creation of good public policy. Vital to public discourse. And vital to the success of modern businesses and organizations.

To illustrate the point, the organizer of the talk, Informed Opinions, discussed a little experiment. Informed Opinions trains women experts to share their ideas through media commentary. Curious to know what differences women’s voices make in terms of focus and content, they created a word cloud from the first 100 published opinion pieces written by their workshop participants. They then compared this word cloud to the most prominent words generated by a similar sampling of op-eds written by male experts.

The clouds contained many similar words, including Canadian, government, health, political, public and work. However, a number of other phrases appeared prominently only in women-penned pieces. Tellingly, these included abuse, assault, benefit, care, children, equality, families, girls, help, justice, services, sexual, support, treatment, violence and women.

In many ways, Campbell’s experience as a woman member of parliament mirrored that experiment. In her talk, Campbell told anecdotes of times she educated an awkwardly silent room of male colleagues about issues such as contraception and sexual assault. Issues that are very prominent in women’s lives, but admittedly were not well understood or considered particularly important by some of her male colleagues.

Given the complex social, economic and environmental challenges we face, it simply does not make sense to make public policy based on the experiences of only half the population. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Campbell.

But public policy is not where women’s contribution ends. Research shows that women also play a large role in driving economic growth. In her talk, Campbell referred to various studies that prove women’s positive influence on business.

Let’s look at some facts.

Research suggests that to succeed, businesses should start by promoting women.

As investors, women come out better on almost every count. They are less likely to hold a losing investment for too long. They are less likely to wait for too long to sell a winner. And they are less likely to put too much money into a single investment or to buy a reputedly hot stock without doing sufficient research.

Women also excel as leaders. New studies have found that female managers outshine their male counterparts in almost every measure. Forty-eight per cent of all US firms are owned or controlled by women. Compared to all firms, women-owned firms have triple the growth rate, twice the rate of job creation and are more likely to stay in business. McKinsey & Company found that international companies with more women on their corporate boards far outperformed the average company in return on equity and other measures. Operating profit was also 56 per cent higher.

How can these results be explained? A recent article from Scientific American provides some insight.

In that article, entitled, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Katherine Phillips discusses decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers that demonstrates that being around people who are different makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.

Phillips notes that people who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand. Diversity promotes hard work and creativity by encouraging the consideration of alternatives. Her conclusion? We need diversity- in teams, organizations and society as a whole- if we are to change, grow and innovate.

So far, Campbell and I are on the same page.

My disagreement comes with what to do about the inadequate representation of women’s voices.

Despite the fact that women constitute roughly half the population and workforce, and more than 60 per cent of university grads, women’s voices continue to be inadequately represented in media, politics and business.

In Canada’s most influential print, broadcast and online new media, male voices outnumber female voices by a factor of four to one.

In Federal politics, only 17% of Conservative Members of Parliament are women. The percentages for the NDP and Liberals are 38% and 25% respectively. BC has the highest rate of women MLAs in Canada at 36%. The other provinces and territories range from 10% (Northwest Territories) to 35% (Ontario).

Status of Women Canada reports that in 2012, women held only ten per cent of seats on Canadian boards. They held only 16 per cent of board seats on FP500 companies. And, on 40 per cent of FP500 boards, women held zero seats.

So what do we do about this serious underrepresentation?

Campbell suggests that women are often shy of power, that we see it as a bad thing and not as a potential to do great good. She suggests that women need to step up and grab power.

This to me, sounds a lot like “lean in,” the message to women from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. In her book, appropriately titled “Lean In,” Sandberg suggests that women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers rather than pursuing their career goals with gusto.

Step up, lean in, whatever you want to call it, is a philosophy that puts the onus on women for their inadequate representation in positions of power rather than the institutions and corporate structures that were made by men and continue to be run by them. It is a philosophy that calls out women for “opting out” of their careers rather than their employers for refusing to foster flexible, supportive environments that are more likely to keep women employees.

But more importantly, in my view, it is a philosophy that distracts us from the real question we should all be asking. It’s not a question of how we force businesses to accept women or their unique tendency to bear children. Nor is it a question of how to force women to work harder or longer. The question is, given what we know about women’s profound impact on the success of various entities, how can organizations justify their exclusion?

At a time when innovation is recognized as a key competitive advantage, the increase in a group’s intelligence attributed to the inclusion of women should be sufficient incentive for organizations in all sectors to work harder at soliciting female participation.

In my view, given what we know about women’s contribution to public policy, science and business, it is simply negligent for public and private institutions to refuse to reform the structures that push women out. Organizations should be asking themselves what they can do to make themselves more attractive to women, so they can reap the benefits of keeping us.

The refusal to change may well be the death knell for the stubborn “old boys’ clubs” of the world that will fail to take advantage of the exceptional investment, communication and leadership skills of women and thus fail to remain competitive.

In the meantime, our leaders should stop asking women to take personal responsibility for systemic failings. Our ambition (or lack thereof) is not the problem.

-Kaity

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