The issues facing female founders today, according to Businesswoman of the Year Awards finalists

women in business
Nancy Graham, centre, from presenting sponsor PWL, is surrounded by 11 of this year's 12 finalists for the WBN's Businesswoman of the Year Awards. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Ahead of Thursday's Businesswoman of the Year Awards finals, OBJ sat down with nominees from across the categories to get their perspectives on challenges facing women in business.

What do you think are the top two or three issues facing women entrepreneurs today and why?

STAYCI KEETCH: I believe the top issues are more social in nature. I’ve led my team of all men into boardrooms and the people I’m meeting assume one of them is the CEO. My three-year-old was told by his daycare provider that he must be mistaken, that his mom can’t be at work because his sister was only a month old.

The expectation that both men and women have that the woman needs to be the one to balance it all is ridiculous. I think that women are not pursuing entrepreneurship because they don’t want to take on the load of “it all.” Who would? So from a young age if you think you might want a family down the road, you’d avoid the entrepreneurship life.

I think we need to highlight more men who have career success and share a family load. Then women will start to see what is possible.

PIERRETTE RAYMOND: I think for many women like me who work in male-dominated industries, we still have to prove our worth and demonstrate our expertise before we are allotted the same graces that our male colleagues naturally receive. I have also seen it with female clients who are moving up through the ranks.

I know it sounds antiquated and we should not be having this conversation, but it’s a reality that many of us still face. The good news is we simply do what we have to do, demonstrate that we are just as worthy as our colleagues and that we merit a seat at the table. We simply move forward to serve and create an impact.

TRINA FRASER: Many women entrepreneurs do not have the same ease of access to mentors that men do. Structured mentorship opportunities for women entrepreneurs ensure that mentoring relationships develop and flourish. These mentoring relationships are critical in building the confidence of budding women entrepreneurs and in building their networks, which will open doors to the capital and other resources they need to execute their business plans.

Organizations like the WBN provide this structure and opportunity. Established businesswomen also have a responsibility to pay it forward by acting as mentors to younger women.

ALLYSON CHISNALL: I think all business owners worry about the same things ​– finding and keeping clients, cash flow and the long hours associated with being a business owner. Starting a small business is a leap of faith, and it can be very challenging in the early years to attract and keep new clients, price your work appropriately and feel comfortable saying yes, and sometimes no, to prospective clients.

I think this can be more difficult for some women business owners, but this confidence comes in time. All small businesses have trouble getting unsecured financing, and I suspect women are less likely to ask their partners to co-sign a loan or to put the house up as collateral, and therefore cannot grow their business as fast as they would like.  

There have been suggestions that one way to encourage an increase in the number of female founders is to institute rules mandating a certain number of women be appointed to corporate boards. What are your thoughts on this?

SK: I don’t think forcing that helps women. I think you can spot a progressive company by looking at their board. If a company doesn’t understand that, it’s not a board a woman would want to be part of. No one wants to be a token.

PR: I love this question. Why? Because it begs the question as to what we women are doing to model what we say would be important for women to take on leadership roles.

Are we mentoring and modelling what we are seeking to improve? Are we taking steps and standing out to show women of all ages that we need them at the table, we need them in the C-Suite, we need them founding companies and sitting on boards?

We can’t just say that is what we want and need. We can’t simply impose rules and mandates. We have to lead by example, model what is achievable and be mentors to those who desire stepping fully into leadership roles.

TF: As opposed to “affirmative action” measures, I believe that a more effective approach is to drill down and identify (and address) the underlying causal factors ​– for example, examining the job description for the position and eliminating criteria which are not truly required competencies and which may have the unintended effect of discouraging women from applying for the position.

Also, examining the recruitment/selection process and identifying and eliminating conscious or unconscious biases against female applicants. And ensuring that the individuals responsible for the hiring process are committed to gender diversity. Having women-friendly policies in place and enforced in the organization will also help to attract and retain women in senior roles.

CHRISTINA HLUSKO: Although I would definitely like to see more women in the C-suite and on corporate boards, I don’t believe the path there is through mandated appointments. I believe that in order to become leading candidates for board appointments or C-level careers, women must first have access to a variety of educational and work-related opportunities. Beginning in secondary school, girls should have non-traditional and senior-level careers presented and modelled for them.

In the workplace, employers must provide opportunities to ensure that lesser-known career paths can be tried. This may be done as acting assignments, job-shadowing or succession-planning placements. A successful business and a healthy economy are based on people fully realizing their potential and making a difference each and every day.

What about corporate policies mandating that are least one women be interview for all C-Suite job openings?

AC: MediaStyle, as a B-Corp, is taking part in an inclusion challenge that includes looking at the way we do our hiring. Our research shows that women only apply for jobs when they have almost all the qualifications listed, while men apply even if they do not have the qualifications.

Reflecting on what we learned, we changed the language of our job descriptions to take out words that might discourage women from applying like “rock star” or “exceptional” in relation to their work skills, and I would encourage other businesses to do the same. Change the language, make it more inclusive and women will step up. We are ready and we can get the job done.

KATHERINE COOLIGAN: The concept of imposing mandatory rules for recruiting, promoting and retaining talent is gaining popularity. Variations on the “Rooney Rule” (the NFL rule that requires teams to interview at least one candidate from a visible-minority group for a head coaching or senior operations role) are being introduced in various industries. In law, it is the Mansfield Rule, that measures whether law firms consider diverse candidates for a minimum of 30 per cent of their leadership and governance roles.

Just this week, Goldman Sachs announced it is implementing its own version of the Rooney Rule, requiring that at least two diverse candidates be interviewed for open jobs. I do believe that these rules are necessary and essential to the commitment of all organizations to take action towards a truly diverse workforce, beyond the lip service some diversity policies represent.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need them, but until then, they help us level the playing field. These rules ensure discipline in the actual application of diversity policies.

SK: I think this will just make people feel good about the hiring process, but not effect any change. If you want real change, a better idea would be a blind hire, where you remove the first and last name from paper, as well as any dates, but keep the duration of positions. Then you have a third party conduct the interview and give the transcript to the people hiring. That way you can’t discriminate against race, age, religion or gender.