Like many Canadians, I was proud this week when our new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, unveiled his new cabinet. His is the first cabinet in Canadian history with equal numbers of men and women. Amazing!
But then I stopped myself… Why is this newsworthy? When a reporter asked Trudeau: “I understand one of the priorities for you was to have a cabinet that was gender-balanced. Why was that so important to you?”, he replied simply: “Because it’s 2015”. Damn straight! But then why did it take us so long to get here? I was further dismayed and disheartened to read and hear of all the ensuing discussions on merit.
I think that Justin Trudeau made wonderful choices for his cabinet. I wish, though, that we lived in an era where these choices could be made in the absence of an explicit 50-50 gender quota. And I am saddened as a woman (and as a human being, in general) that, with gender parity, comes a discussion on merit and capability. Because I know, from experience, that these concepts are not inextricably linked.
As a former executive recruiter, I was often asked by clients to put forward slates of female candidates. I remember the first time I was presented with this request… If I am to be perfectly honest, I was decidedly uncomfortable. It felt to me like I was being asked to compromise the calibre of the candidate pool. But here is what I learned: the finalist candidates were just as strong, if not stronger. Not once did I (or more importantly, my clients) feel that quality had been scarified in the name of diversity. However, new strategies were employed to get us to the finish line.
I’m not going to lie and tell you that it was easy to find an equivalent number of qualified female candidates, because it just wasn’t. I would point to two main reasons for this:
(1) Despite making up 50.4% of the population and 47.3% of the overall workforce, women account for only 18.1% of the executive ranks in Canada. In other words, there is a small pool of women from which to choose.
(2) Women, more than men, tend to underplay their achievements, and give themselves less credit for their accomplishments.
Now let’s put these two together… The sheer number of potentially qualified women is small and, because they are less likely to sell themselves, these women can be harder to find. Clearly an uphill battle. But one worth fighting!
Purposely increasing diversity often means looking at skills and accomplishments in a new way. It no longer means: you’ve done this exact job for a similar company or organization, so you are therefore qualified to do it here. Instead it can mean delving into other industries and/or functions to find women whose past achievements and skill sets can be extrapolated to determine how they would tackle new or different problems. These women bring new insight and perspective into their roles.
Some people might suggest that these women didn’t earn their roles through merit alone. True, additional time and effort were required to unearth these talented women. But just because the net was cast wider does not mean that these women aren’t every bit as qualified as their male counterparts. And, that being said, how can you possibly argue with a leadership team that better reflects an organization’s customers or constituents?
Because, after all, it’s 2015!