What really makes the difference in women’s leadership programs. Plus, how to say ‘no’ to extra work


Open this photo in gallery: Women’s leadership programs have become common in large organizations, but…

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Women’s leadership programs have become common in large organizations, but what elements are most beneficial?sturti/Getty Images

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Over the last decade, leadership programs focused on women have become more common in large Canadian organizations. While these programs may not have spawned major changes in corporate Canada’s gender diversity numbers – only 6.6 per cent of Canada’s largest publicly traded companies had a woman CEO in 2023, up just one per cent from 2020 – they have facilitated development opportunities for the thousands of women who have participated in these programs.

But what really makes a difference for women in these kinds of programs? What are the activities and sessions that women have found most useful in pursuing their career ambitions? The Globe Women’s Collective spoke with representatives from four leadership programs to find commonalities in what really moves the needle.

Mandy Rennehan on how she became a powerhouse in a male-dominated business

“After high school, I moved to the big city of Halifax and worked for free for different tradespeople,” says Mandy Rennehan, the ‘Blue Collar CEO’ and founder of on-call retail maintenance provider Freshco. “I was poor, and fascinated by and addicted to construction. It was daunting. It was 1995, and it was like, Holy shit, there’s only men in this industry. On top of that, I figured out I was gay—what a resumé! So I did what I still do today: I show up, and I’m me. As an East Coaster, you grow up with a good liver and a personality, so I was the same way with these guys as I was with my brothers: I brought my personality game, and I think the respect I had for what they did went along with that.

“And then I did one job in Halifax that went really right for a very wealthy family, and my name spread across the Maritimes. I was 19, and everybody was talking about the girl from Yarmouth.”

Read more about Ms. Rennehan’s journey to construction industry success.

Why a career break can break the relationship

“The situation is all too common,” says Eileen Dooley, a Calgary-based talent and leadership development specialist and leadership coach. “When a couple has children, one partner focuses on their career, while the other focuses solely on the family or works a more flexible job so family and household tasks can come first. Then, as the children get older and the couple is nearing retirement, they get divorced.

“I heard two recent examples of separation. In both cases, partner one, we’ll call them Alex, and partner two, who we’ll call Taylor, had careers until it was decided Alex would no longer work and Taylor would continue to grow a career. It sounds good, until it’s not.

“No matter how much Taylor encouraged Alex to go back to the work force when the kids got older or pursue a different career, Alex refused.

“Making matters worse, Taylor’s career is growing, watched by Alex. Resentment on both sides starts to appear and boom – the fur starts to fly.”

Read how forethought and planning can avoid these kinds of conflicts.

In case you missed it

Why gender analytics is good for business

Six years ago, McCarthy Uniforms, which has been making school and workplace uniforms since 1956, was struggling to expand internationally and teetering on bankruptcy.

Then, in 2017, the Toronto company conducted a gender-based analysis of their business, a multi-step process to investigate how gender and other identity factors may relate to a business problem and uncover potential solutions.

Through the review, the company discovered, among other things, that female professionals such as bus drivers were encountering issues wearing uniforms designed for male bodies. So, McCarthy added a uniform line for women, brought in products with more stretch and introduced fitting days so drivers could find the apparel that worked for them.

“They had one bus driver, a woman, who tried on her uniform for the first time and just started crying. It was the first time she’d had clothes that actually fit her,” says Sarah Kaplan, distinguished professor of gender and the economy at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and co-author of a case study on McCarthy’s experience.

Read the full article.

Mansplaining is rude, belittling and not going away. Here’s how to shut it down

When Karen Donaldson worked for a large health organization a decade ago, she routinely gave presentations to rooms full of male board members and directors.

“I was one of none,” says Ms. Donaldson, who is Black, female and looked young for her age at the time.

As she shared information on behalf of the foundation she worked for, some men in the room invariably cut in and re-explained what she’d just said. It irked her, but she didn’t have the words to assert herself and push back.

Today, Ms. Donaldson is a communication and body language expert in Toronto who works with everyone from C-suite leaders to celebrities. Not only does she now have the words to deal with mansplainers – men who offer unsolicited explanations and advice, often with a side of overconfidence and cluelessness – but she also shares her arsenal of strategies with her clients.

Read the full article.

Ask Women and Work

Question: Lately, I’ve been asked to take on more than I can handle at work. I can get my own tasks done, but a couple of teammates consistently ask me to help on projects. I don’t want them to think I’m not a team player, but I’m feeling stretched too thin. How can I say no in a diplomatic way?

We asked Vanessa Patrick, associate dean and professor at the Bauer College of Marketing at the University of Houston, to tackle this one. Dr. Patrick launches her new book, The Power of Saying No, at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto on Monday, October 2:

When you are capable, reliable and responsible, people are going to try and put more things on your plate because they know you will get it done. The downside of that is that you can become overburdened, burned out and stressed. So, you have to balance helping other people with your own mental health and well-being.

The first practical strategy that I recommend when a request like this comes your way is never make a decision in the heat of the moment. When we decide in the moment, we are more likely to say yes when we want to say no. We feel the social pressure. We want to please the person. Say something like, ‘Let me get back to you.’ Buying time gives us the mental space to be able to make a decision that’s better for us.

The second strategy when making this decision is not to ask yourself, ‘Can I do this?’ The answer to that question is often ‘yes’ for capable and responsible people. The question you need to ask is, ‘Must I do this?’

To help you make these kinds of decisions, come up with a set of personal policies that outline what you will say ‘yes’ to – simple rules that will guide your actions and decisions. These are unique to every person making them. It really needs to start with what you’re good at, what you want to bring to the table and where your values lie.

If you conclude that, ‘No, I’m not going to take this on,’ you need to decide how you will communicate this no response to the other person without damaging your reputation or your relationship with the other person. This is where the art of empowered refusal comes in. It’s about developing and communicating your refusal based on a deepened self-awareness and grounding your refusal in your identity, essentially making the refusal about you and not a rejection of the other person. By doing this, you come across as much more effective in your refusal and you are less likely to get pushback. It’s not a wishy-washy no, it’s very concrete.

If this was my situation, for example, I would ask, ‘What are the things that I want to do and what do I care about?’ I care about the fact that anything I touch has to be excellent. Taking on more might mean that I drop the ball on other things, and then my goal of excellence is diminished. So, if someone asks me to take on something that that I don’t want to do, I will communicate by saying things like, ‘I don’t take on projects unless I’ve finished what I’ve got on my plate.’ Or, ‘I will not commit to doing this because I don’t have the expertise to deliver it at the level of excellence that it needs.’

Most of us, when we are trying to respond, reach out for the nearest excuse. ‘I can’t do it because I have to pick up my daughter,’ for example. But what excuses do is they leave the door open for future requests of this nature. It’s better to use a personal policy. That way, you are less likely to have that person come back and ask you again.

Submit your own questions to Ask Women and Work by e-mailing us at [email protected].

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Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on The Globe Women’s Collective hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback? Email us at [email protected].


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