If you blinked this last week you might have missed it but a trifecta of unrelated events took place producing a cultural shift in how we perceive women in leadership roles. Each event – important in its own right — occurred in isolation but when viewed in unison, wields a significant impact.
It started when the U.S. military announced it was lifting its ban on women serving in combat roles, which means women may apply to fight on the front lines and in elite commando units. Pundits may debate whether or not women possess the same physical prowess as men but in the end, the decision positively impacts the public’s perception of women’s abilities.
Then, Kathleen Wynne won the Ontario Liberal leadership, making her the first woman to serve as Ontario’s premier. Canada now boasts six female premiers across the country, representing a majority of Canadians. Although two of them have yet to be tested in a general election, it shows a maturing level of acceptability for female leaders in politics.
It’s not just in Canada, Hillary Clinton’s popularity continues to soar and speculation that the outgoing secretary of state will make another run for the White House in 2016 remains rampant.
Then a Statistics Canada report showed that the number of women in the top 1 percent of earners almost doubled in the last 20 years. In layman’s terms, that means over 53,000 women generate an annual income of over $201,400. Of those women, 32 percent are not married or in a common law relationship.
These three events show that physically, politically and financially the perception of women as leaders is slowly becoming the new normal.
This is not new to some commentators. Two distinct camps emerged over the last year on the topic of women and leadership. While one side argued that decades would pass before we see equality in the business world the other asserted that women are now the new men. I always maintained that the truth remained somewhere in between but there is no doubt that a change in cultural mindset is taking place, setting the stage for these sudden spurts of advancement.
Skeptics, argued Monica Dodi, a Los Angeles-based managing director and co-founder at the Women’s Venture Capital Fund, only need to look back 40 years, when the U.S. mandated federal funding for sports programs for both women and men. Back then, she recalled, no one could have predicted that women’s sports would be seen as acceptable as it is today.
“I believe that women in combat will be as acceptable and commonplace as women in sports,” said Ms. Dodi. “To me, it’s normal that we should be able to defend ourselves and our country… Just as it’s normal that we should be able to play sports,” she added.
Still, not everyone remains as optimistic. While Soosan Daghighi Latham, assistant professor at York University’s School of Human Resource Management agrees that society has become more accepting of women in leadership roles, she thinks we’re far from a watershed moment.
“Our institutions from government to organizations in private business are fundamentally male oriented (and) dominated. The few women – and there are few even as we boast 6 premiers — who succeed do so primarily by continuing to play the male value game,” she observed.
The difference, observed Ms. Lathan, is that more women now have the choice to become a leader. While she expressed her pride in the women who lead our provinces, and commended them for paving the way for others to follow in their footsteps, the choice to become a leader doesn’t come with any guarantee of authority.
“A cultural shift will happen when we have a critical mass of women in leadership positions as role models”, she added.
Still, others remain cautiously optimistic.
“There is no doubt … that women, whether in Canada, or globally, are becoming a powerful national and international cohort,” said Penny Collenette, adjunct professor in the faculty of common law at the University of Ottawa and former director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office. She points out that Kathleen Wynne and B.C Premier Christy Clarke still need to go through general elections and have inherited their mantle of premier as Kim Campbell did the title of prime minister. Yet, twenty years later, we still have not seen a female PM elected by the country at large.
However, she acknowledges that progress is being made and this new acceptance of women in leadership positions is being integrated into the business community. She describes our current landscape as a ‘glass that’s half full.”
If we look at the broader landscape, this cultural shift will continue and our perception of female leaders will constantly evolve. That is, if we can figure out how to maintain this momentum.