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.


Raising Little Activists: 7 books worthy of the next generation

I spent the weekend before last visiting one of my good friends and her two adorable children. My friend is one of those rare people who radiate compassion and positivity. She follows the same world events I do and holds dear the same values I have, and yet her outlook is somehow different. I always leave our visits feeling distinctly more hopeful, like the future is just slightly brighter.

I’ve known since my first Women’s Studies classes that there is more than one way to be a good feminist. There is more than one way to bring about meaningful social change. But often I think of this work as public, whether it be advocacy through the courts, in the media, or in our workplaces. I don’t often think about the ways we can change the world from home. My friend and her two adorable children reminded me of one of the most important and perhaps most effective ways to change the world: by raising the next generation.

I’m not just talking about parents here. I’m talking about all of us. Whether we be aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers or friends. We all play a role in raising the little people who will one day have to fix our mistakes.

So how do we raise socially conscious kids while we are being bombarded with messages about fear, prejudice and violence? How do we teach kids compassion, equality and hope while we are barraged with rules about appearances, gender roles and who should be with whom? Well, for starters, we can read to them.

“We don’t need a list of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.” — Philip Pullman

I did some digging and I compiled a list of socially conscious books that I consider worthy of the next generation. Here goes.

  1. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

inde6xBefore there was Katniss Everdeen there was Princess Elizabeth. It should come as no surprise that this was one of my favourite books growing up. It is about a heroic princess who outsmarts a fierce dragon to rescue her prince, wearing only a paper bag. It turns out the prince is a superficial doofus, so she dumps him and lives happily ever after. Robert Munsch wrote this book after his wife asked him, “How come you always have the prince save the princess? Why can’t the princess save the prince?” And so this treasure of a story was born. I love this book because it bends gender stereotypes. And let’s be serious, there aren’t enough girl heroes in literature.

  1. Giant Steps to Change the World by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee

index6This is a book about standing up for your beliefs despite the obstacles in your way. It is about the power each of us has to make a difference in our world. Each page references a famous person in history who overcame adversity to change the world. As an adult, it’s fun to try to identify the heroes. The message: no one is too small to make a big change. I’ll admit, I felt pretty inspired myself.

  1. Migrant by Maxine Trottier

index1Migrant tells the story of Anna, the daughter of temporary foreign workers who come to North America for the agricultural season. Throughout the book, Anna feels like various animals: a jack rabbit, a bee, a kitten. Each analogy reveals a different aspect of the hard life of temporary foreign workers and their families. We have a lot of temporary foreign workers in Canada, and as citizens we greatly benefit from their hard work. And yet, we do not afford them the same rights, respect and protections that we extend to citizens and visitors alike. This story makes you question why that is.

  1. I Have the Right to be a Child by Alain Serres and Aurelia Fronty

indexThis book illustrates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It describes in accessible language what it means to have rights – from the right to food, water and shelter, to the right to go to school and be free from violence. This book would be a good way to introduce the concept of human rights and to start a conversation about the situation in other parts of the world where children do not have the basic things we take for granted.

  1. The Enemy by Davide Cali and Serge Bloch

index2This is a book about war that really is about peace. The story begins with two soldiers, each in their own hole. The soldiers are enemies. As the story unfolds we see that these enemies really are not that different. They both get hungry, they both look at the stars and dream of peace and they both miss their families. And yet they each believe that the other is a monster. This book is about seeing “the enemy” as a person and about the futility of war. Given current world events, the message that we should see each other as fellow human beings is an important one.

  1. Wangari’s Trees of Peace by Jeanette Winter

index4This book tells the true story of Wangari Maathai, environmentalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Horrified by the deforestation in Kenya and the impact it was having on her country and its people, Wangari empowers the women in her village to plant trees. Word travels and soon other women in other villages and towns and cities plant trees too. Until there are over 30 million tress where there were none. This book is about environmental stewardship and the empowerment of women.

  1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

index5Roy and Silo are two boy penguins who fall in love. Like the other penguin couples, Roy and Silo want a family. Unfortunately for them, no matter how long they sit on their nest of stones, there is no baby penguin. Until a zoo employee slips an egg that would otherwise not have been cared for into their nest. I love this story because it celebrates diverse families in a totally disarming way. Even better, the story is true. What a great way to start a conversation about gay and lesbian families.

These are seven of the best socially conscious children’s books I found, but I’m sure there are many, many more. If you know of any others that are worthy of the next generation, please share. My wife and I are building our collection.


Through My Grandma’s Eyes: Changing the world one cookie at a time

My grandmother is not well. Last week, her doctor told her she had only a few days to live. My mom immediately hopped on a plane to be with her. She’s still here, and for that I am thankful, but the thought of losing her led me to reflect on the ways she has touched my life. Grandparents, I’m sure we can all agree, are pretty amazing. I have three sets so I consider myself pretty lucky in that department. The way I see it, the world would be a much better place if we saw each other the way our grandparents see us. This post is dedicated to my grandmother.

If we saw people for who they really are

unnamedMy Oma and Opa are very Catholic. I remember going on camping trips with them and finding a nearby church on Sundays so we would not miss Mass. When I was ten, my Opa taught me prayers, in English and in German. You would think that very Catholic grandparents would have a hard time with a granddaughter who is gay. I certainly thought so. That is why I made my step-dad break the news without me. But my Oma and Opa surprised me. As my step-dad tells it, they didn’t even bat an eye. They said something like, “well that’s her business isn’t it” and then moved on. I don’t doubt that that is the truth because they have completely embraced by wife and tell everyone what nice young women we are after we visit.

Unlike so many of us, my Oma and Opa didn’t see me as a collection of labels. They saw me as the girl they have known and loved for 21 years. And to them, being gay did not change who that girl was.

The world would be a better place if we too could see people for who they really are, and not a collection of stereotypes.

We all know that prejudice has a negative impact on those who experience it, so I won’t get into that. What I do want to share with you is a study that found that even “benevolent stereotypes” can cause harm. By benevolent stereotypes I mean the stereotypes that ascribe positive characteristics to certain people, like “poor but happy” or “women are nurturing and kind.” Researchers found that these positive stereotypes actually sustain the perception that inequality in society is fair and justified. For instance, after hearing positive gender stereotypes, women subjects were more likely to unconsciously justify gender inequality on the basis that each gender is “well-suited to specific roles.” In this way, benevolent stereotypes actually stifle social change and help maintain existing systems of inequality. Who knew?1

If we truly listened

When I was 16, my parents got jobs in a new city. They planned to move the summer before my grade 12 year. For a 16 year old, this was the worst thing that could possibly happen. I had excelled at school and was highly involved in extra-curricular activities. I had a great group of friends and I was in love (high school is where I met my wife). I was also pretty shy back then so the thought of moving to a new school in a different city where no one knew who I was was terrifying. I was devastated to think that I would be eating alone in the cafeteria the year I should have been celebrating my graduation.

30825_430078771538_2857504_nThat spring my grandmother came to visit. In the few days she was with us, I spent hours confiding in her about the move. I told her about my dreams of university and scholarships and how I didn’t know if they would come true in a new school. I told her about my sadness to leave my friends and community. I told her about my fear of eating alone in the cafeteria. And she listened. And then she went to my mother and made the case for me to stay behind. Ultimately, my mother agreed and I had a wonderful graduation year.

My grandmother could have easily dismissed my concerns as silly or childish, but she didn’t. I will forever be grateful to my grandmother for listening to me without judgment. Not only do I have wonderful memories to thank her for, but I also have my wife who may not have stayed in my life had we not had that extra year together.

The world would be a better place if we too could truly listen to each other without judgment.

When we listen with an open mind we build trust and respect, reduce tension and create a safe environment that is conducive to collaboration and problem-solving. We increase the speaker’s self-esteem and confidence and we elicit openess.2 I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that listening is essential for community building and positive social change.

If we were generous

66632_111481268916751_4140910_nMy other grandma, the one on my father’s side, is one of the most generous people I know. When my sister and I were kids, she would bake dozens of cookies before every visit in each of our favourite varieties. She would keep them in tins on the lowest shelf so that even as kids, we could always reach them. She and my grandpa would also stock their kitchen with all our favourite treats, even the gross ones that they would be stuck with after we went home. We never left their house without twice as much luggage as we came with, whether it be treats, canned goods, knitted clothes or crafts.

My grandma is also generous with her time. She is the one who taught me how to knit three times and crochet twice because I kept forgetting the technique between visits. When my grandpa got dementia, she took care of him from home until the end, despite the toll it was taking on her own physical and mental health.

The world would be a better place if we too could be so generous.

The research is clear that generosity makes people happy. Giving has been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others. It is also linked to the feeling of empathy toward others. And generosity is surprisingly contagious. Studies show that when one person behaves generously, it inspires observers to behave generously later, toward different people. This can spur a ripple effect of generosity through the community. Because of this effect, each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has never met.3

A teacher in Coquitlam decided to test these theories in her classroom. The result was beyond her wildest dreams. The experiment is summed up in this short video. If you have a few minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching it. I cry every time.

I still have five of my six grandparents and I know that makes me luckier than most. But lately I’ve been so involved in my own life that I’ve forgotten to be grateful. The news about my grandmother was an abrupt reminder that my grandparents won’t be around forever, so I need to appreciate them and learn as much as I can about the special way they see the world.

I’m sure everyone has stories about how their grandparents have touched their lives, so please share, I’d love to hear them.



  1. Stereotypes Do Reinforce the Status Quo: Stanford GSB Staff: http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/stereotypes-do-reinforce-status-quo
  2. Empathic Listening: Richard Salem http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empathic-listening
  3. 5 Ways Giving is Good for You: Jill Suttie and Jason Marsh http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/5_w?ays_giving_is_good_for_you