YPO member Desiree Bombenon manages to cram more into a year than most people fit into a lifetime. As CEO and President of Canada’s SureCall, she runs one of the most respected and awarded call center operations in the world. As an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard, she’s spent 2017 researching the best way to educate women in under-served and developing regions of the world. As a wine and spirits importer, she brings delicious brews and blends from France and Israel to the Canadian market. Then there’s the directorship of Canada’s National Music Centre and her mentoring program — not to mention the two novels she’s somehow managed to publish in what must be a vanishingly small amount of spare time.
One of the causes closest to her heart in all her myriad roles is gender parity and women’s empowerment in the workplace, a topic on which she recently spoke at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, New York, USA. “The pace [of change] is frankly unacceptable,” she says. “When I started out in my career there was hardly a day that a comment toward my gender was not made. I have seen improvement over the years, but as many women can attest, there are still substantial ongoing issues with equality in the workplace.”
Unlocking the business opportunities of gender parity
Gender parity and female empowerment are not just moral imperatives for Bombenon, but also business opportunities. “As noted in studies by the World Economic Forum, the Mackenzie Global Report on Gender Equality and the International Center for Research on Women, the potential economic value created by enhancing the role of women in the workforce could boost GDP between five and 20 percent in most countries,” she says.
So how can chief executives implement strategic changes that will unlock the potential of their female employees? Bombenon recommends gender parity adjustments which kick in even before new workers join the company. “When hiring for roles, take the names off résumés and look at the qualifications only,” she says. “You also need not just a holistic approach but an actual resource plan around gender parity. First and foremost, there must be CEO and leadership commitment: The top leaders in the business need to advocate the business case for diversity with clear supporting actions. A diversity-enabling infrastructure helps support all employees to work toward gender parity, so make it part of the company culture. By creating inclusive mindsets right at the start, perhaps in the orientation or business model portion of your new employee onboarding, you are underpinning the expectation of equality.”
Tracking progress is vital. “You’ll need transparent data indicators showing actual movement and change within the organization toward the target percentage of female to male roles,” says Bombenon. All this is supported by proactive encouragement of existing employees. “Why not institute programs within the organization for the development and training of females for future leadership positions? This can include coaches, mentors and sponsors to form a true foundation to the program and commitment to results.”
Diversity drives success
Sensible corporations will make sure that women are represented at management and board levels. “Diversity is critical to informed decision-making,” says Bombenon. “Organizations need to use all available talent — female and male — if they are to capture the full potential of the economic benefits available by gender balance. There are corporations taking advantage of this today, specifically in emerging markets. They are investing in women’s education and promoting women faster than in the Western world. They recognize that adding women to their top ranks is a strategy to move them more quickly into the competitive market economy.”
Bombenon believes that organizations resistant to change should ponder the unique skills that women bring to leadership roles. “Women can empathize with a situation and generally offer an authentic encounter during negotiations,” she says. “Women are often less boastful and lead with the mind and heart. Women work well in teams, there is usually not an issue with ego. Women nurture situations, listen properly and feel a responsibility for the outcome. They create a dynamic on boards that tends to lead to more collaboration and proactive discussion.”
A vision of fairness
As part of her push to empower women, Bombenon set up a “Mentor in a Miniskirt” program in Canada, which brings assistance and advice to women in the workplace. “My favorite mentor was my grade three teacher Mrs. Black, who taught me at a very young age that girls matter, and they can do anything that boys can do,” says Bombenon. “I often think when facing challenges, ‘What would Mrs. Black say to me right now?’ Since then I have had the fortune to have amazing mentors in my life and the opportunity to mentor others. I find I get as much from mentoring young women as I do from being mentored.”
Those chief executives thinking of setting up a mentoring system within their own companies would benefit from ensuring that female mentors are available as well as male. “Having a female mentor brings confidence and inspiration to other women,” says Bombenon. “Women connect with each other in a way that allows them to be more open and transparent. There are issues they can speak about that perhaps would be more difficult with a male mentor. They may feel a greater sense of understanding around responsibilities and juggling work with family.”
Bombenon has a positive vision for the future of women in the workplace. “Parity to me is a vision for fairness. It’s about never feeling like gender is on the checklist when looking to fill roles or in areas where a decision is being made within the organization,” she says. “We need parity not reversal, which means really finding the best people, no matter what the situation, and keeping diversity as a key contributing success factor within our corporations.”
Bombenon doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. As part of her work at Harvard, she has created a project, “Hero Girls,” designed to target the root causes of gender inequality across the globe: she’s currently in discussions with WE Charity about deploying a pilot scheme in 2019, and with UNICEF about their UNdaunted program which aims to change the lives of one million girls plus their families, communities and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. You can’t help feeling that Mrs. Black would be proud.
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