Increasing Leadership Opportunities for Women

Published June 29, 2016

Increasingly I’m inspired to think of choices when tackling both every day and complex problems by approaching them as ‘and/with’ problems instead ‘either/or’. This connected duality had me thinking about the role of men and women in sport and how the sector would benefit if we approached it under much the same approach.

A few weeks back there was a great article in the Ottawa Citizen that spoke to female leadership’s role in transforming the public service, citing Carleton University’s Women’s Leadership Matters. The same article also highlighted how the new glass ceiling limits women’s contribution at the highest level, which in the public service is at the deputy minister level. For instance, while women hold more than 55% of the jobs and 46% of all executive positions, they held about one-third of the deputy minister jobs. An interesting observation is that women tend to do well in open, merit-based competitions but they do not do as well when the prime minister makes at-pleasure appointments into deputy minister roles. Why is that?

Well for one thing, the process to hand pick higher up appointments was described as ‘mysterious and less transparent’.  In addition, the ‘old boys club’ of days gone by still tends to linger at the political top. That so-called mindset among deputy ministers and a preconceived notion of leadership characteristics influences who people believe have the skills, knowledge and credibility to step into these powerful roles.  I have written numerous blogs about leadership and the benefits of a collaborative approach to managing others. The literature is clear that we have moved past the day of the charismatic leader towards a new mindset … one that Jim Collins describes in his book Good to Great as “Level 5 leaders”. This approach seems to be intrinsic to many of the female leaders I have come to know and admire. They are strong, intelligent, compassionate, active listeners who are willing to take ‘smart’ risks, be open to change, and curious in the face of adversity. We only have to look at the number of female sport executives in our midst to see that the sport landscape is changing … and with leaders like Ann Merklinger, Lorraine Lafrenière, Karen O’Neill, Sue Hylland and Penny Joyce we are shaping the future of the sport sector.

This being said, I am also of the opinion that men can not only be allies in supporting a new form of leadership, but they can also hold a feminine perspective that can help to balance the more masculine energy that is so strongly at play in sport. What I am arguing for is a balanced, or collaborative approach to leadership, that takes the best out of both lenses for the benefit of all. And/with. As one example, I remember having both my finest and more challenging moments as a soccer coach working with two different male partners. They felt like two extremes and over the years I’ve wondered how I could experience such radically different experiences. What I have concluded is that in the first case, my male assistant coach was adopting a different (autocratic) leadership style to my own (collaborative). As the head coach, I brushed up not only against competing values but also against my own insecurities as a female leader. Was I good enough? Maybe this more collaborative approach won’t work? Maybe I should only focus on winning as my main measurement? That ‘long’ summer proved to be one of the best learning environments for me as a sport leader.  While it was painful, it also motivated me to continue to contribute in different leadership capacities and to be open to working with another male partner when the opportunity arose.  A few years later, in the capacity as assistant coach, I collaborated with a male coach and the experience proved to be much different. I suspect that the main reason is that we shared similar values and I felt safe, respected and invited to share my strengths with the team. I believe that our approach enhanced the experience for the adolescent girls we were coaching in that they witnessed the collaboration between us and received the benefits of both masculine and feminine approaches to problem solving, team building, and communications.

So where does that leave us?

When we look around us, we see more organizations pressing for quotas. Why?  Because it makes good business sense to have more women on boards.  Research has proven that having diverse perspectives around the Board table enhances decision making.  According to Catalyst, a global non-profit organization that advocates for women in the workplace, companies with three or more women directors in at least four of five years significantly out-performed those with sustained low representation by an astonishing 84% on return on sales, 60% on return on invested capital, and 46% on return on equity. Simply, it’s a financial risk not to have more women on Boards.  We’ve blogged about other benefits of diversity and you can read another perspective here.

Sadly, Canada and the rest of the world is still lacking in this area where women comprised just 15.9% of those on boards at Canada’s largest companies in 2013, according to Catalyst.  Currently the ‘comply or explain’ requirement of TSX-listed companies to report publicly on the number of women on their boards seems to be a step in the right direction. If there were no female board members, the companies have to explain why. I quite like that suggestion for the sport sector. It may be among a suite of other incentives to help us deal more effectively with some of the high level risks we’ve been facing over recent years.

I believe that more work needs to be done if real change is to happen. Other suggestions that we have written about include:

  • Surrounding female leaders with great mentors
  • Paying attention to the dominant leadership style at play and consciously moving towards a more modern, less hierarchical form of leadership or what the research describes as women’s leadership style – check out our blogs on management by values for other tips
  • Review your organization’s structure – a more inclusive and collaborative approach tends to be flatter
  • Setting realistic targets that have supporting strategies and reporting mechanisms to accomplish them
  • Review selection processes and other criteria to ensure gender bias has been removed
  • Foster an inclusive workplace where all individuals - women, men, transgender, and non-binary - feel welcomed and appreciated
  • Be a vocal leader – work with other diverse groups to share what you’ve come to learn about inclusive work environments

Complex problems are increasing in both severity and frequency. We need the benefit of both women and men and people of various ages, backgrounds, skill-level and orientations to inform and lead in today’s turbulent environment. Send me a note at to share your thoughts on this important topic.

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