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Challenging the status quo in the Canadian workplace

A company's competitive advantage comes from those who don't put up with the status quo

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at paddleink@gmail.com, stalked via @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at CalgaryBusinessWriter.com.

Mar 1, 2014

by Marzena Czarnecka

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Illustration Daniel Downey

Dude – with the suit, tie and shoes, each of which cost more than the average car payment? Yeah, you. Come over here. We have to talk. I know you think this is going to be one of those glass-ceiling, diversity, affirmative action stories, and the little angel on your right shoulder is telling you to do the enlightened thing and read it (or at least be seen to be reading it), while the little devil on your left shoulder wants to make an inappropriate but funny-to-you joke. Tell them both to beat it. This is a story about why I don’t work for you.

Don’t roll your eyes. You should care because I’m brilliant. Like, not just a little. Off the charts, top percentile of everything. You know all those “high potential,” “crème de la crème” candidates your HR people and all those succession planning coaches are eternally going on about? Yeah. That’s me. And you don’t have me.

Do you know who gives you the best competitive advantage and will point out opportunities? The people who don’t put up with the status quo.

And it’s not just me. See her, over there? She’s even smarter than I am: she can see connections in trends, economic forecasts and people’s spending patterns that would make you rich beyond the dreams of avarice if you deployed her talents on behalf of your corporation. And that one over there? You know that hole in your talent pipeline you’re looking to fill? She’d be perfect for it. Speaking of pipelines – she’d sell Northern Gateway to David Suzuki himself. But she’s not in your talent pool. She left it 10 years ago.

We all left because we all have this thing called a uterus. Your wife’s got one, your daughter too. Your mother – that’s how you came to be, you know that, right? We’ve got these things, and that’s where new people incubate. And after they’re born, well, we’re kind of attached to them.

And even if we weren’t – the survival of the species depends on us, you know, taking care of them. Feeding them. Taking days off work when they’re sick or in high need … What? Nannies, daycare? Not enough, not enough – and you don’t get it, because, let me be blunt, you have a wife.

I’m talking with one of the most powerful women in the patch – and she managed to work for you, thank your lucky stars, because she’s brilliant and amazing. “I have two wives,” she says. “My nanny and my assistant.” And a support network in her husband and extended family. And even with all that – it’s been harder than for her male colleagues. She’s got to outperform, outpace, outgun. And also – never complain. “You can’t show weakness, vulnerability,” another of your VPs says. “It’s really sweet when the guy says and does things that show what a great dad he is. You can’t be too much mom in the board room.”

Now, uncross your arms and unclench your jaw. This isn’t your fault. You didn’t create the environment in which half of your best and brightest feel they can’t be both brilliant execs and committed mothers. You were born into it, indoctrinated into it, and you don’t notice it at all – and so you perpetuate it. I know – and she knows, the exec walking out the door right now, you’re losing her, run, turn her around, too late, she’s gone – the oil patch is a meritocracy. It is. The problem is, it’s an unexamined meritocracy. With enough exceptions – enough stories of determined, ridiculously successful women who made it, who persevered, who are a-top the heap – that the dysfunction of its basic structure just pitter- patters along.

The junior talent pipeline in several of the oil patch’s key professions is not 50/50. Women account for less than 20 per cent of engineering graduates, for example, and about 35 per cent of MBAs. Of working professional engineers, only 11.7 are female. Geologists do better, with 25 per cent of working geologists equipped with uteruses. Female CEOs and VPs in the oilpatch? So few you know all of them by name. But frankly, the national picture isn’t that much better, despite better parity in the lower levels of the pipeline. According to one non-profit that seeks to expand opportunities for women in business, Catalyst, women hold five per cent of the Financial Post 500 CEO/head roles and 4.5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions.

“My perception of women in the oil and gas sector is that to succeed, they turn into boys,” says one woman, a former oil patch exec. “And that’s not really shocking, right? When I look around at who I can emulate – there are very, very few women who are older than me who I can look up to as role models. So who do I, by default, look up to? The men. And who do I emulate? And what does that perpetuate?”

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And now your ego’s a bit bruised because you’re inferring that I’m calling you a bad role model, for me, for her. Well … you are. You don’t have a uterus. And, more than likely, your career didn’t suffer a setback, slowdown or derailment when your wife started having babies.

So here’s the situation. I’m purposefully not leading you down any paths that talk about the strengths and benefits of gender diverse (and otherwise) corporate cultures and decision-making environments. You either get that or you don’t, and if you don’t at this point, the rest of us just have to wait for you to retire while the world moves on. I want you to focus, hyper-focus, on this: half your talent pipeline has a uterus. The perpetuation of the human species relies on many of them choosing to grow a child or two in that organ; the economic well-being of the country depends on women being a contributing part of the labour force; the financial success of your corporation depends on leveraging their talent, on keeping, grooming and using the best of them.

And this will inevitably happen: many of your talented, top performing, best-suited-for-leadership women will have babies. It’s kind of a basic biological thing. One of the studies Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt examine in Freakonomics looks at the steadily widening wage gap between male and female MBA graduates. The researchers’ conclusion: “The big issue seems to be that many women, even those with MBAs, love kids.”

Now add this to the equation: the other half of your talent pipeline? The daddies? They love their kids too. A recent study by Catalyst shows that half of all high-potential employees, regardless of gender, want flexible work arrangements from their employers; 30 per cent report using such arrangements frequently, very frequently or always – and leaving workplaces that don’t offer such flexibility. When your high potentials, male or female, are withdrawing or downsizing their contributions to your corporation because you don’t know how to keep them – you lose. You fill your talent pipeline with who is left, with no guarantee that it’s the best ones. It’s just the ones willing to put up with the status quo.

Do you know who gives you the best competitive advantage, who will challenge your organization’s unspoken assumptions, who thinks outside the proverbial box and will point out opportunities that will crush your competition? The people who don’t put up with the status quo.

In other words: the women, and the men, who leave.

The lecture’s almost over. Actually, you can leave. I don’t need you for the next part. The cultural-institutional change Corporate Canada and the oil patch needs to see must come from the top. If you continue as you always have, this next part is for the top millennials – boys and girls both. Your boomer bosses, they call you lazy. I know you’re not. And you’re not stupid, either. You’re not going to do the thing that doesn’t work. So listen, darlings. This is how you change a culture: you stay. And you make demands. Look at what you need to succeed on the corporate ladder and at home, in your family, in your whole life. And ask for it. Ask loudly, repeatedly. If you don’t ask, you definitely won’t get. If you ask, and get, you’ve started to transform the culture.

Only caveat: you’ve got to perform. It’s top performers who rewrite the rules for everyone else. It’s like noblesse oblige, corporate-style. Got it? Now off you go. Transform the oil patch, Corporate Canada, and the world.

Further Reading:
  • Women in Gas, Mining & Oil in Australia, Canada & the US (Catalyst, September 24, 2012), catalyst.org
  • The Great Debate: Flexibility v.s Face Time–Busting the Myths Behind Flexible Work Arrangements (Catalyst 2013), catalyst.org
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers: PwC’s NextGen: A Global Generational Study: Evolving Talent Strategy to Match the New Workforce Reality (2013)

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