July 2011

We will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap.”

Sheryl Sandberg


If women do not participate fully in entrepreneurial activities, we lose half the potential of our society and economic development will be limited. Women who do take on entrepreneurial roles succeed admirably. Thus, their participation is all the more important. This article cites a speech by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, in which she offers several reasons for women’s lack of participation and leadership. These factors are discussed and several solutions are proposed which could contribute to making the environment of a community more supportive and conducive to the successful participation of women in leadership roles.


Economic development and market growth constitute viable means to parry the threats of recession and unemployment. As competition on the international marketplace becomes ever stronger, each nation and each region will need to cultivate its unique resources and strengths. In Canada, we need to focus on creative ways to expand our current activities in areas of strength.

Canada’s strengths have always resided in our resources and we have excelled in exporting the raw materials of our forests, mines, agricultural tracts, and rivers. Today we realize that the possibilities of expanding this market are limited because the resources themselves are limited. We also face increased difficulty in extracting and transporting these resources safely because their location is ever less accessible.

In a world where high technology and digital communications hold great value, a highly educated and skilled population is key to current and future economic success. Our college and university graduates constitute our most precious and most renewable resource for the future.

Yet, the population of Canada is not growing and thus we must encourage all citizens to participate in the economic development of the country. While we note that the number of women graduating from university has increased to equal, and in some areas exceed, the number of men, we have not yet seen a similar increase in women holding positions of great responsibility. However, there are some encouraging signs, particularly among women entrepreneurs. One need only note the impressive statistics listed by Deloitte in the advertisement for the 2011 RBC awards recognizing women entrepreneurs, which boldly proclaims the significant role they play in Canada. The invitation for nominations states that women entrepreneurs:

  • represent one of the fastest-growing business segments in Canada

  • run firms that create new jobs at four times the rate of the national average

  • collectively provide more jobs that the Canadian Top 100 companies combined

  • create companies at double the rate of the national average

  • have doubled the number of women with incorporated businesses in the last decade

  • number 821,000 self-employed individuals who contribute $18 billion to the Canadian economy

These statistics tell an interesting story for those of us who would like to improve the success of our national and regional economies. The story is that women are capable of extraordinary success and that we need their full participation. The story leads naturally to the question of how one might cultivate this success, how one might encourage more women to participate in local, regional, and national economic development.

On one hand, of course one might claim that, since the participation rate of women is lower than that of men overall, those participating likely exhibit best the qualities required for success. In other words, increasing the number of women in business is not a guarantee of increased levels of success. On the other hand, if their success is no more than equal to that of men, exploring ways to enhance their likelihood of participating is worthwhile.

Overcoming Challenges

In the important book, Half the Sky, authors Sheryl WeDunn and Nicholas Kristof identify the oppression of women and girls around the world as the major challenge of our century. In previous times, the world has abolished slavery and ended totalitarianism. They say that we should resolve to make the rights of women the issue of the current century. If we are to be leaders in the world, we should be able to demonstrate that the developed world offers a model. Yet the figures do not demonstrate equality. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO: “Men run the world. Of 190 heads of state, nine are women. Of all the parliaments around the world, 13% of those seats are held by women. [Of] corporate America’s top jobs 15% are [held by] women; numbers which have not moved at all in the last nine years… Of full professors around the United States, only 24% are women.”

Sandberg shared these statistics during a recent address at Barnard College, in which she also identified a series of reasons why women may not be as successful in their careers as their male counterparts. The first reason was ambition. She challenged women to “think big.” If women do not close the “ambition gap,” she said, they will not eliminate the “achievement gap.” She indicated that from a young age, women may calculate how many hours they need to dedicate to other responsibilities, and reduce career aspirations even before they begin. They may not attempt to climb the corporate ladder beyond a certain level in order to dedicate time to family.

Sandberg also indicated that women need to believe in themselves and their capacity to achieve. They should not always attribute their success to good fortune or the combined efforts of the team. They underestimate their performance and their potential.

The third reason she identified was the correlation between likeability and success. The more successful and powerful men become, the more they are liked. The opposite is true of women. They are judged harshly by others (both men and women). Thus, women may either become victims of their success or of their likeability, which stands in the way of achievement.

The fourth reason was the cost of success in terms of personal sacrifice. While the workforce has become more open to and welcoming of women, it is not possible for every woman to be “superwoman”—mother, CEO, driver, cook, and caregiver at once. Women make choices and often, the decision is to forgo the highest level of performance at work in favour of a balanced lifestyle. Women ask themselves if success is worth the hardship.

The final reason Sandberg gave was fear of failure. This actually related back to the belief in self and confidence which women lack, fail to express, or both.

Sandberg’s points would actually be equally valid for men and women. We all need to believe in ourselves to be leaders, be ready to sacrifice for success, be courageous and prepared to look failure in the eye, and accept the fact that leaders are not always liked. Indeed, her first point about self confidence is universally valid. On the other hand, accepting credit for work well done is sometimes associated with a lack of modesty and an oversized ego. Sharing praise with team members is positive and creates goodwill.

The question of sacrifice is, based on many surveys, quite real for men and women. Women, however, still tend to accept a greater level of responsibility at home and spend more time with children. If we wish to attract more of them to business, we need to support them in such a way that the need to sacrifice is diminished. In the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review, the story of Genpact’s CEO, Pramod Bhasin, who built “an industry in India from scratch,” is edifying. When Bhasin set up his base in a suburb, he simply created all the necessary services to enable the hiring of the large numbers of employees needed. He created cafeterias and hired a transportation company to bring people to work. He simply calculated this as part of the cost of doing business. When hotels wanted to bring women business travelers to their establishments, they surveyed women and then added to their suites the items women wanted. If we want to attract women entrepreneurs, we need to create the climate in the workplace and in our communities which is supportive of their participation.

The question of likeability is related to the definition of qualities. Over the years, it has been noted through studies of reference letters, that similar traits may be viewed as negatives for women and positives for men. Aggressive males are seen as ‘assertive’ while women displaying the same characteristic may be deemed ‘pushy’. The question of likeability is, however, symptomatic of the views of society in general. Not only does this perception make it more difficult for women to wish to be seen as strong, thereby risking not being admired, but it also means that if successful women are not liked, then others will not wish to emulate them. One only need think of women heads of state and the treatment they receive in the press to conclude that whatever style they adopt, whatever policy they propone, whatever they do or do not do, they will generate more criticism than their male counterparts. Young women desiring to take on powerful roles and positions of leadership need to be prepared to endure negative commentary. It is, unfortunately, not simply a question of a few slings and arrows. It is also a question of limiting one’s opportunity to find a spouse, to have friends, to live in the community as part of it. Successful women may well be invited to sit at the head table of the banquet hall. They are not usually invited to the neighbourhood pot-luck supper. If they attempt to soften their image, they are subject to criticism. If a successful, corporate businessman is seen picking up his children after a soccer game, he is considered quite a hero and this is considered a sign of his humanity. If a woman does, one wonders how she has time, if she should not be at work or doing something else and why would she be wearing whatever she is wearing?

Encouraging Women to Participate

Simply taking these points and looking at the possibilities for developing a region’s economy, one might consider a number of positive steps to improve the participation of women. Solutions include targeting businesses which would be attractive to women, offering services which would enhance their ability to combine their responsibilities at home and in the workforce, creating an environment where women’s participation is valued, where the qualities they bring with them to the workplace are respected and where their success is applauded.

Women are invariably active in non-profit organizations. It is only a small step from being a volunteer to being an employee and another from being an employee to running an agency or starting one’s own non-for-profit business.

There are more women university graduates in the arts, humanities, and social sciences than in science, business, and engineering. Rather than consider this a negative, one might consider what they have to offer. In a globalized world, the ability to communicate in more than one language is a great asset. Even locally, banks with branches in Chinatown hire Chinese-speaking staff. If a business major can learn Chinese, a Chinese major could learn finance and accounting. The addition of a minor in entrepreneurship, open to majors in every field, is a brilliant innovation of the Sprott Business School Faculty at Carleton University.

The participation rates of women in the field of engineering have improved slightly over the years, but there is still quite a way to go. Whenever one wishes to encourage minority participation, the author’s experience suggests that a critical mass of 30-40% is required. A bold suggestion would be to offer significant scholarships to the top women applicants until the critical mass is obtained. One might do the same for males in fields such as nursing. Examining the numbers, one may observe that the women who have gone into engineering may group themselves in certain fields, especially those involving interdisciplinary content such as environmental engineering. If one created business opportunities bringing together the content creation and the software and hardware production, one would not only have cutting-edge products but a diverse workforce.

We also need to think ahead. For example, the regulation of currently expanding fields will require new abilities and new specializations. International standardization will become a growing issue as markets continue to globalize.

There is a need for courses and programs such as the Lead to Win program at Carleton University and the course on Innovation for women CEOs at Harvard. There are many talented women who have not had the opportunity to learn about entrepreneurship. They were not necessarily encouraged to follow male role models and there were very few successful women in business to emulate.

Requirements for obtaining loans and getting a business off the ground need to be fair to all and must be known by all. Successful entrepreneurship depends on a solid base of knowledge, of “how-to” practicality, and of agencies open for business with all. I shall never forget meeting a woman who told me she had been refused for a loan by three banks. I looked at her papers. Everything was perfectly in order. There was absolutely no reason she should have been refused. As I mused about the situation, I asked her what she had worn to the bank. I had her make an appointment for the next day and lent her a suit and a briefcase. She came back with the loan. The same thing might have occurred for a male who was not well dressed. The problem was that she had no idea that her appearance would matter. She was a brilliant entrepreneur but had not learned to sell herself.

Service companies need to be encouraged. Day care is an obvious need as well as drop-off centres where children can be left while parents run a few errands. In some cities, one can shop for groceries online and pick them up on the way home from work or have them delivered. Dry cleaners pick up and deliver. Car dealers will take the car for servicing and return it to one’s place of work. Concierge services will go to one’s home to cover when deliveries are expected or repairs need to be done. How many days a year of work are lost by people waiting for repair companies who promise to arrive “sometime between nine and noon”? How many really bright women would migrate to work in a city where such services were available? Regulations surrounding day cares and drop offs might be eased to permit cooperative ventures and businesses might offer subsidies for such services in lieu of memberships to golf clubs. Businesses might offer a service to pick up children from day cares that close when parents have to work late.

The organization of the community is also important. If schools and essential services are located in proximity to residences, then time is saved making people more productive. If the needs of working women are taken into consideration in planning housing, then they will adopt communities more readily. Safety, ease of access, and decreased need for maintenance are, along with proximity to services, all important issues.

Across North America and Europe, communities are busily declaring themselves “wireless”. Entire cities and neighbourhoods, not just cafés, offer free internet services. New communities with front porches on the street to encourage neighbourliness and places for children to play safely are sprouting up everywhere. The community that could declare itself friendly to working women would be highly prized.

The physical environment and services are visible and relatively easy to resolve. There are costs associated, but the costs of not investing in promoting the possibility for women to succeed, are also great. In a competitive economy, in a “flat world”, people are mobile and populations follow employment opportunities, which in turn depend on the amenities that attract business development. In a world where innovation is prized, inviting the full participation of all is essential. In a country where the population is not increasing, all must be able to share the best of their talents and abilities.

The final problems are the most difficult because they are the result of perception, steeped in tradition. Traditions can and do change. Since 2001, the author has sat on the Board of Directors at the National Bank of Canada, rated by Bloomberg as the number one bank in Canada and number three in the world. In 2009, under the leadership of Mr. Louis Vachon, President and CEO, and Mr. Jean Douville, Chair of the Board, the bank adopted a governance policy whereby future nominees to the Board will be represented equally by women and men. Any company could make the same decision and the success of the National Bank of Canada demonstrates that such a policy does not negatively affect returns, security, or reputation.

Recognizing Achievement

Well-meaning organizations have been diligently creating awards for women, thinking that these awards will encourage more women to be entrepreneurial. Women recognizing women or even companies attempting to appear, or to be, encouraging and supportive by offering prizes, is an interesting concept. What if there were the Nobel Prize in Physics and then the Women’s Nobel Prize in Physics? Would the women’s prize be considered to be of equal value? Recognizing women is a good, first step but giving them equal recognition with men would be the next step.

Anyone who has served on numerous prize and award selection committees, will agree that in general, most of the nominees will be men unless the award is specifically for women. Thus we must all nominate women. This is easier said than done. Nominations take a good deal of effort. When one is not successful with a nomination, it is difficult to determine to repeat the process. There is the fear-of-failure factor which will come into play along with the consciousness of the simple fact that winning will bring as many negative comments as positive ones. What can be done to reward women in small ways that will not involve big contests, lots of publicity, and the consequent negative reaction? Rather than reward the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, one might offer a small prize, like a small gift certificate, to every employee in the company that showed the strongest growth or that provided the most supportive environment for employees? This would focus not on the individual but on the team and the reward would be shared. We might also offer rewards for those who nominate others.

When women are successful, what can we do to make the next generation of women and men view their success as normal and even admirable? We need to promote images of women who succeed on their own terms. They must populate the pages of the business cases at the best schools. They must be in pages of our newspapers and not the fashion magazines. They must be in our popular fiction and films in roles other than the evil boss, or jealous, scheming co-worker. Women have long played the temptress (Eve), the mother (the wife of Father Knows Best), or the zany broad (I Love Lucy). The hard-working Cinderella is rewarded, not for work, but for her beauty (and shoe size) which are only recognized when she has a nice dress and shoes. The real heroine is the fairy godmother and we need a few more of them both in real life and in literature. That would be a terrific role model, and while even the good fairy godmother has to contend with bad fairies and evil stepsisters, this situation is but a reflection of reality. In addition, turning mice into footmen and pumpkins into coaches can be usefully transferred to inventing new solutions to old problems.

We should teach all women and men to be strong and to admire strength in others. Grading systems in academic institutions and reward systems at work must promote value in supporting others, in being creative. When we do so, we will no longer need fairy tales for inspiration or example.


With strong, targeted educational opportunities, appropriate services, expansion of non-profit activities, an emphasis on industry and opportunities that match the talents and experiences women bring to the marketplace, creation of the appropriate regulatory environment, and community housing and safety programs, a region can support the participation of women and encourage women to take on leadership roles. If a region undertakes to be supportive of women entrepreneurs, it will cultivate a precious resource. As regions compete for business in the future, the regions with such environments will be most attractive to both men and women and will succeed in economic expansion.

Women entrepreneurs should be encouraged by role models and aided by mentors. Women should be rewarded equally. There should one day be no need for special awards for women because they will receive their equal share of recognition in fair competitions. We also need to create new narratives of success for women and men alike. These stories should become part of our culture and affect the aspirations of our youth. Tales of women and men who achieve greatness through entrepreneurship, through dedication and hard work, though collaboration and sharing praise and rewards, will add to the culture of success that we need to create for women and men who suffer from self doubt, fear of failure, and a desire to be accepted and liked. This is one, positive way to eliminate the stigma associated with success for women. The civilization that achieves this goal might even double its output without using up its natural resources or recruiting a new population from another region.

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