Financial Post: Teaching women to be more confident about their achievements

Sep 26, 2013
Colleen Collins, Associate Dean, Beedie School of Business. Image by Paul Joseph

Beedie School of Business associate professor Colleen Collins says it is important to provide a supportive environment to help female students to succeed.

The following article was published in the Financial Post on September 25, 2013.

Colleen Collins likes to illustrate the difference between men and women moving up the executive ranks with an anecdote.

“If a woman sees a job with 12 requirements, and she can meet 10 of them, she won’t think she’s qualified to apply. But a man with only two of [the 12] skills believes he is,” says the former associate dean for Simon Fraser University Beedie School of Business in Vancouver. “I really wish we could instill that attitude more in young women.”

It seems that women get off to a blazing start in MBA programs, especially at Beedie, where registrations is 50% female (one of the highest ratios in the country). “We work hard to recruit females and to make sure they’re supported when they get here,” Ms. Collins says. “It’s important that we try to put everything in place to make sure they succeed. That’s not to say they’re not competitive or as qualified. Some just need a more supportive environment.”

While mentoring and network opportunities abound for female executives on the move, there’s still a cultural divide when it comes to how they make their presence known in the workplace. “It’s as much a matter of culture as anything else,” Ms. Collins contends. “Women tend to thrive more in cultures where they feel valued and appreciated.”

When senior management goes out of its way to encourage women to apply for an executive MBA program, women will often show a huge jump in confidence, she adds. “I hear a lot more from women in executive MBA programs that they would never have [applied to the program] unless senior management singled them out. You don’t hear that nearly as much from men.”

MBA programs have tried several ways to introduce women in management-focused programs. Some have languished for lack of registration. Others morphed into a diversity focus that casts a much wider net. Networking and mentoring are also commonplace support mechanisms for building women’s connections and confidence. Yet that still doesn’t seem to address the fact that in some work environments, women are still reluctant to put their best foot forward.

Anne Marie Hubert, managing partner of advisory services for EY (formerly Ernst & Young) in Montreal, notes there are two things in the workplace that play an important role in their drive for advancement: experience and recognition. Unfortunately, they sometimes don’t get either, simply because of the biases that exist on the part of both employers and women themselves.

“Often women don’t get the same recognition,” Ms. Hubert says. “Why is that? My take on that is women don’t talk about their accomplishments enough or don’t feel as qualified. Men for their part often talk about the latest deals or meeting, so they’re noticed more when it comes to promoting someone.”

She believes it’s important for MBA programs to include training on the societal and systemic biases that still exist. “That’s the only way to ensure that everyone can reach their full potential as leaders. When I go to speak to MBA students, they’re very passionate about the topic.”

The need to understand the issues and address them is something that every leader should consider, Ms. Hubert says. “I don’t think they cover that in school. So where do we cover it? It’s not an easy conversation to have.”

Queen’s School of Business is trying out a new confidence-building approach by partnering with the Women of Influence Advancement Centre to launch an Executive Certificate in Leadership program aimed at strengthening women’s professional skills. Queen’s has developed a curriculum concentrating on developing the business fundamentals that will give women in business the confidence to compete in their work environment.

The sessions run from one to two days, and cover such topics as negotiation and consensus building, leading organizational change, business finance for everyone, creating innovation in a lean environment, coaching for challenging conversations, and managerial decision making. These are supplemented by programs offered by Women of Influence.

Registration numbers have been surprisingly high, says Barbara Dickson, managing director of executive education at the Queen’s School of Business. She believes the popularity can be attributed to the fact that [the sessions] provide a venue for them to talk to other like-minded women about their career progression and discuss situations that might be unique to them.

But in some ways, it’s disappointing to know that the women seem to be grappling with the same problems they did in early days, she says. “In the early 1990s, I wouldn’t have thought in my wildest imagination there would still be a need for a women-specific program.”

Ms. Collins is hopeful that things are changing as more and more women enter undergraduate business programs. “The young women we’re getting into the programs are amazing and are heading for big things without question. So maybe we won’t be having this conversation in five years.”

Click here to read the article in its entirety at the Financial Post.

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