Women in Leadership: Takeaways from International Women’s Day

On March 8, 2021, Staples Canada hosted a public panel discussion for International Women’s Day featuring members of the company’s senior executive team to discuss this year’s theme, #ChoosetoChallenge, eliminating systemic gender bias in the workplace, and the complexities of leading a business through COVID-19.

To keep the conversation going, our executive team shared answers to some of the audience questions we didn’t get to cover during the conversation:

Being profiled in different professional environments is something difficult to deal with when one is starting off (career wise). What is the best way to deal with this tactfully?

When you are early in your career, the steps you take to become strong in building relationships and communicating will serve you well. Building relationships with individuals that you respect, both inside and outside of your workplace is critical. These relationships will allow you to seek advice on difficult topics and find mentors and sponsors, which will serve you well in all aspects of your early career, as well as later in your career. Building your communication skills to be able to express your opinions tactfully and confidently will make all situations easier to deal with. – Michelle Micuda, President of Staples Business Advantage

I feel like I have always been taught, like many women, to not make people uncomfortable by speaking up when I'm uncomfortable. For example, I felt talked over constantly in a conversation with a man in a more senior position recently, but decided not to say anything in fear of how I'll make them feel/how I'll come off. How do you overcome this without feeling bad for how you make others feel or what the outcome might be?

Finding your voice is a personal journey and your confidence, your message, and the environment can all contribute to your comfort level. To build your confidence, start with small, everyday situations where you are in the company of supporters and comfortable delivering your message respectfully. Then, build up to large meeting situations or discussions with tougher topics, choosing respectful wording that works for you. It is up to all of us to create safe environments for others to share opinions. We all learn by being a little uncomfortable. Consider whether you are making the other person feel uncomfortable or helping them learn. – Michelle Micuda, President of Staples Business Advantage

How do you feel the dynamics between women and men differ in meetings that make it more difficult for women to speak up? How do we promote change?

Communication styles, personality types, experience levels, power, and confidence all contribute to the dynamics between people in meetings, including women and men. Anyone in a minority (gender or any other aspect) in a meeting can have a more difficult time speaking up and entering the conversation. We can promote change in many ways – by the person in the minority being more willing to speak up, by leaders creating a positive meeting environment to seek out all opinions and by the creation of more diverse teams, which are inherently better at seeking and listening to alternate viewpoints. – Michelle Micuda, President of Staples Business Advantage

I think it is reasonable for you or anyone in the group to establish upfront how the group will ensure that all voices are heard. Starting and ending the meeting with a quick check-in, I find is helpful. Establishing an etiquette around how we communicate – especially on virtual calls. This includes using the raise hand function, if needed. It is hard to fight your way into a conversation sometimes, especially when there are dominant voices around the table. If you feel comfortable having 1:1 conversations with the other participants to make them aware of the challenges you are facing, this can be helpful as well. This will create a mindfulness with the individual participants, who will hopefully lean in and help to create conditions for all voices to be heard. – Rachel Huckle, Chief Retail Officer

How do you push through when you don't have a sponsor and your manager doesn't encourage you to take that stretch role?

Many times, a sponsor or mentor is not your immediate leader. Ask if your organization has a formal mentorship program or check with your professional organization to see if they have one. Also, seek out opportunities to participate on cross-functional committees within your company – you will gain new skills, expand your network and increase your profile across your organization. – Wanda Walkden, Chief Human Resources and Talent Officer

How would you recommend dealing with people (either men or women) who don’t believe there is such a thing as gender bias?

It's important, if you feel comfortable, to speak out about your own experiences. Call out discrimination in the media and advertising and give examples. Use statistics where possible to support that gender discrimination still exists. – Evelyn Sutherland, Chief Financial Officer

What would be your key advice when someone's behaviour is not respectful and inclusive?

Reach out to the individual after the meeting, ask to speak to the individual directly and let them know how their actions, comments, or behaviour made you feel. Give them an opportunity to respond. You may need to be clear with what it is specifically that upset you or made you feel disrespected. There are times when individuals aren’t intentional with their behaviors. While they are accountable for their own actions, enlightening them on how their behaviour made you feel will go a long way in helping them to better understand. If the behaviour is intentional or is a blatant disregard for you as an individual, I think this warrants discussion at a different level. – Rachel Huckle, Chief Retail Officer

Study after study shows that the more gender balanced a business is, the better it is likely to perform. Yet, women account for only 20% of leadership roles. What did Staples do differently? What was implemented to attract and retain such a talented pool of women leaders?

To impact the diversity of any team, a commitment has to be made starting at the top. Our CEO is committed to ensuring our leadership team reflects the diversity of the communities we operate in. It is critical that the candidates you are considering for each search includes a diverse pool of candidates, including the final list of top candidates. Also, both your internal and external succession plans for future vacancies needs to include a diverse pipeline of candidates. - Wanda Walkden, Chief Human Resources and Talent Officer

What advice do you have for men who want to be a more effective ally for their women colleagues? What would you say to young men entering their careers, to help support and continue the positive growth of safe and equal representation of women in the workforce and leadership roles?

1. Look for ways to clear space for your fellow women colleagues to share their opinion or answer questions in meetings. That may mean stopping the discussion to specially call on your colleague to provide their thoughts (especially when you know they have an opinion).

2. Actively asking for their opinions, really listening to their responses, and then taking action, where it makes sense, will make a difference.

3. If in a position to make this happen, secure unconscious bias training for your teams.

4. Make sure that women on your team get credit for the work that they complete.

5. Push back if you hear a woman say they are not ready or not qualified for an opportunity - encourage them to just go for it!

– Evelyn Sutherland, Chief Financial Officer The first step is participating in sessions like Women at Staples panels and gender inclusion programs. Gender programs often focus on women and what they can do differently, when in reality, men need to be involved. Many men are challenged when asked to participate – not because they don’t want to, but often because they don’t know where to start or how to start. Some opportunities for men to be better allies for women:

1. Understand their social privilege simply because of their gender.

2. Get involved and demonstrate active efforts to address gender inequalities. Challenge inequalities and organizational structures that disadvantage women.

3. Spend time understanding how gender inequalities come to life in your organization. Speak to women and learn from their experiences.

Get involved and take the time to learn more about gender inequality. Great start!

– Rachel Huckle, Chief Retail Officer

By Staples Canada

March 29, 2021

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