The Advancing Leadership Blog

Are We There Yet? Women, Position & Power (Part 1)

Call me naïve but when I entered the workforce in the 1980s, I thought gender equity was a done deal. The “women’s libbers” had marched. Bras had been burned. The movement had ensured that women could move out of the kitchen and into corporate boardrooms.

When I started to work in human rights in the mid 90s I began to appreciate just how wrong I had been. While 70% of Canadian women with children under six years old are now working, (more than double the 31.4% in 1976), not very many of those women are making it to the C-suite.

A recent Conference Board of Canada report showed that very little progress has been made in the last 20 years. Despite the fact that women hold the majority of university degrees, the ratio of men to women in senior leadership positions is still more than 2 to 1. Only 3% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Women hold only 14% of Canadian board positions.

This issue has been the topic of much discussion and research. There can be no doubt that systemic factors are affecting the ability of women to climb the corporate ladder and that those need to be addressed. Lately, however, I have been wondering what other factors might be contributing to the experience of women, position & power.

I became curious as a result of my work dealing with power based behaviours like bullying and harassment. Women tend to be on the receiving end of the majority of these complaints. One of the main reasons for this is that women make easy targets. We take it. We don’t speak up. We avoid conflict. In effect we contribute to our own victimization, albeit unknowingly. We have conflicted relationships with our own power which causes us to bully other women.

Now sisters, before you start sending me hate mail, let me assure you that my interest is in figuring out how to end both bullying and inequality: for women and everyone else. My experience is that the best way to figure this stuff out is by being curious and asking questions. I decided to sit down with 4 women who have beat the odds and made it to a senior corporate positions, (outside of Human Resources), to get their perspectives in the hopes it might shed some light on this issue and offer some guidance for those of us interested in finishing the work started way back in the sixties.

My first interview was with Anne Kinvig COO of Pacific Blue Cross & BC Life COO of Pacific Blue Cross & BC Life. Pacific Blue Cross is BC’s largest provider of health and dental benefits. The organization has 750 employees serving 8000 employer groups, as well as 60,000 individual plan customers. They offer health, dental and insurance products.

I asked Ms. Kinvig to talk about the path that led her to the C-suite, and if/how gender had affected her journey. She shared her perspective on the reality of being a woman in a position of power, given the stereotypes and biases that are out there, as well as her experience with women who “target their sisters” with disrespectful, power based bullying behaviour. I’ll be sharing the highlights of that interview, framed as Lessons for Leaders and Lessons for Women in part 2 of this post, which will air, quite fittingly, on March 8th, International Women’s Day.

Erica Pinsky M.Sc, CHRP, is a respectful workplace solutions expert and author of the highly acclaimed book Road to Respect: Path to Profit.  A provocative and inspirational speaker, trainer, author and consultant she works with business to build workplace cultures that attract and retain top talent in an environment free from discrimination, harassment, bullying and destructive conflict. Contact her at 604-266-1267,

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