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Lessons from Lean: Why we need women in leadership

I grew up watching sports with my dad, and in addition to him, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee were my heroes. In 5th grade, I won a Presidential Fitness award for the flexed-arm hang and, needless to say, PE was my favorite subject. That was, until 7th grade PE class.

By Nicole Collins

On the first day of 7th grade, our male PE teacher announced that we were going to start the football unit and I was stoked. Time to get outside and play. But this didn’t happen. Instead, the teacher excused the boys to start playing football while he held the girls back and explained the game to us, for the entire period.

I was mortified. But did I let the teacher know I could already play? No, sadly, I did not. I sat there. I fought back tears and listened to him describe a game that I already knew how to play. And more detrimentally, I internalized a lesson that most women learn at some point in their childhood: that women are to sit back and defer to men for knowledge and leadership.

Since then, I’ve had the amazing luck to work with fabulous leaders and mentors, both women and men. But as we worked through our brand refresh at Stantec and reminded ourselves of our purpose of creating communities, I began to reflect on all of the issues that our local and global communities face.

For example, consider that:

  • Around 7 million children under the age of five die each year (WHO 2013). Of those deaths, malnutrition is now responsible for around 3.1 million (Lancet 6/6/2013)
  • Depression affects around 350 million people worldwide and this number is projected to increase (WHO 2013)
  • In the US, one in nine bridges remains structurally deficient (National Bridge Inventory 2012)

With global problems like these, we need 100% of human ingenuity available and focused on solutions. But global business and political leaders are overwhelmingly male. In America, only 17 percent of Fortune 500 board seats are held by women, a mere 3 percent of board chairs are women — and women are barely represented in President Obama’s cabinet. Here at Stantec, our board is 22% women, about average for our decidedly male (although increasingly female!) industry

So why do women consistently fall behind men in leadership positions? A thought-provoking explanation comes from Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, Lean In, which attributes the gender gap, in part, to sexism and corporate obstacles — but also, in part, to women who don’t aggressively pursue leadership opportunities.

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” Sandberg writes in the book.

Practically describing my 7th-grade self, Sandberg says: “We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives, the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.”

I found Lean In’s career advice for women to be spot on, and I believe the book should be required reading for all girls in high school. Yet I am more intrigued by the structural changes that are necessary to promote women in leadership and the global implications of investing in women and girls.

For example, in our businesses, we need more women in leadership positions because, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, “considerable evidence suggests that more diverse groups reach better decisions.” Corporations should promote women not just out of fairness, but also because it helps businesses perform better.

Yet there are even more compelling reasons than fairness or effective decision-making to promote women in leadership. Sandberg’s book makes the important point that promoting women in leadership will allow us to harness the full potential of human ingenuity in order to solve some of our world's greatest challenges.

Not ready to take Sandberg’s advice? How about World Bank President Robert Zoellick? He says, “Investing in girls is smart. It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

According to the World Bank, primary school education has a direct effect on GDP. In a 2010 study, the World Bank concluded that if by 2010, every young child was completing primary school, per capita GDP levels in the developing world in the year 2035 could be as much as one-third to one-half higher than they otherwise might be.

Besides the positive effect on GDP, there are many other equally important reasons to invest in women and girls. The World Bank found that girls' educational achievements have a direct influence on the timing and number of their children: educated women have fewer children, and have them later. If many choose to delay childbearing, even by just five years, by the year 2100, developing countries' populations could be smaller by 1.2 billion, improving health, education and employment prospects for billions of people.

Finally, greater education for girls will enable more and more women to attain leadership positions at all levels of society, from health clinics in local towns and villages to city councils, parliaments and boardrooms in our capitals. This, in turn, will change the way societies deal with problems, raise the quality of global decision-making and create better communities for all people.

Sandberg’s Lean In is a call to action for women—and men. Let's build a better world together!

Promoting women in leadership allows us to harness the full potential of human ingenuity to solve some of our world's greatest challenges.

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