Keeping the conversation on gender equality front and centre – until we don’t have to – is truly what’s best for us as organizations and as people.

That was the message I received last week when I attended the Toronto Power Women Bisnow event where I was recognized along with several other women in the real estate industry.  I was honoured and humbled to be in the presence of so many accomplished women—many with names I knew well, but whom I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to connect. And who had been an inspiration to me as I continue on my own journey.

The event was oversold with nearly 400 people (standing room only). And to answer the natural question, “Was it filled with women?” I can proudly share that it was a room filled with men and women.

Inclusion is Key 

The event kicked off with Tanya Van Biesen, Executive Director at Catalyst, who spoke about accelerating progress for women through workplace inclusion. Her previous role focused on board, CEO and management-level search assignments at Spencer Stuart, where I initially met her during a ULI session about on women and boards.

Tanya tossed out a stat that got a lot of laughs when she said there are more men on corporate boards named John than there are women serving on boards altogether.  She explained that  progress has been slow and explained why with the quote, “For those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

She brought the conversation down to a simple nuts and bolts perspective about gender equality: it’s not a nice thing to do – it’s the right thing to do and for good business reason.  We actually need to tackle the issue of equality as a business imperative. Canada is in a talent crisis – we have a shrinking talent base and we need talented men and women. Period. How will we fill the demand? Easy – add more talented women to the mix.

Diversity is Good for Business

Women are 47% of the workforce and 60% of them have university degrees. We essentially have a treasure trove of talent that is underutilized.  But why?

We all read the familiar buzz–it’s on the covers of respectable journals and in the headlines of news articles. Harvard Business Review has stated countless times that diversity makes for a smarter, more successful team. But intent, leadership and action are required to make stronger more, diverse teams happen. And while progress is slow, it is happening.

Tanya referenced investor activism as an example of where things are going in the right direction. The boardroom has become an increasingly popular way to measure women’s advancement. There are 16 institutional investment firms with $2T in assets that have made a pledge to gender equality. But the reality is that men run 95% of the worlds companies. To those that shake their heads, I remind you that it’s an evolution.

Power Panel

The event included a panel discussion with the following fellow honourees: Laurie Payne, Diamond Corp; Jane Gavan, Dream Global Reit; Qi Tang, Riocan; Kay Brekken, First Capital; and Anna Kennedy, KingSett. The panel was moderated by Sheila Botting, Deloitte.

The conversation was authentic (for the most part) and well-respected by the more than 400 pairs of ears in the room. They discussed their challenges, “mistakes” and my favourite topic–advice to their younger selves. There were a lot of nodding heads, and what I surmised to be the common denominator at the end of the day was a group of women in our industry, who have worked hard to get where they are, and continue to do the best they can with the people, tools and resources that they have available to them, in order to make a difference in the real estate industry.

Toast for Dinner is OK 

The most memorable and relatable experiences and the “nuggets” of wisdom I walked away with were about the fact that women are still generally responsible for the majority of domestic duties that weigh us down as we strive for balance. The unending search for some level of equilibrium does result in some significant life lessons:

  • Occasionally making toast for dinner is okay.
  • So is receiving a Christmas Card from the neighbourhood pizzeria (because you’re their #1 customer).
  • You don’t have to clean before the cleaning lady arrives.
  • A supportive partner (if you choose to have one) can be enormously helpful.
  • Forgive yourself (repeatedly),
  • Invest in yourself. Lean on someone. Hire a coach.
  • Know the difference between ego and pride (and don’t disregard or devalue your accomplishments).
  • And finally, for those with children…acknowledge that at the end of the day, you can’t outsource your kids, so simply do your best.They will survive it. And so will you.

As great as the morning was, we still need to work at it. Women need to sponsor other women, and we need to engage men. One panelist shared a story about being criticized for having a male event co-chair. Her response was that “this is as much his problem as it is mine – it’s not a women’s issue.”

Merit Requires Objective Measures 

Gender balance drives a better business world with merit defining the strongest proponent for a position. Note that we have to be cautious and educated in how we define merit – as we all define it differently and subjectively. We need to put objective measures in place. There is still a lot to learn.

When the floor opened for questions, women raised their hands one after another. When the moderator probed for question from a male audience member, Kingsett Capital founder John Love asked the panel what men could do to help with some of the obstacles that women are encountering. The room burst into laughter when one of the panelists asked how much time he had. He received several thoughtful answers, but perhaps the one piece of advice that resonated most with me was the insight that we can’t do this without being inclusive. We can’t do this without men. And so I think John’s question peaked the curiosity of a lot of men in the room. And that’s a great thing. Now I’d define progress by having a man up there on the panel with us next year.

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