Why I chose “sustain” as one of #my3words for 2023, reminding me to keep showing up fearlessly every day

In my recent posts, I’ve been talking about the annual list of #my3words that I select to help remind me every day of what I’m committed to that year. After sharing my thoughts on elevate and innovate, I’ve arrived at the third word on my 2023 list: sustain.

What Sustain Means to Me

When I think of sustain as a guiding word for my year, I’m thinking about sustaining my efforts to show up every day, constantly striving to improve every aspect of my life—health, business, family, and relationships. Once I’ve put my own oxygen mask on, I’m also working in service of others to help them sustain their progress and commitment to themselves.

I’m also thinking about making all those efforts sustainable by taking time to regroup and recharge and encouraging others to do the same. If you have to work 24/7 to achieve a goal, that’s not sustainable.

On a larger scale, I’m working to impact change across Canada through my social purpose company, Women Get On Board Inc. (WGOB), as we work to achieve gender parity on the country’s corporate boards. And that change has to be sustainable for the long term.

So sustain means many things to me, making it an important motivating guidepost.

The Summer of Barbie

Let’s talk about Barbie for a minute. I don’t just mean as a brand that has managed to sustain a loyal following of young girls for over sixty years, although it sure has. Nevertheless, who would have guessed that in the summer of 2023, Barbie would be the hottest topic of conversation?

I was massively into Barbie as a little girl. I spent hours dressing my Barbies in their various outfits, enthralled by all the glamorous fashions she came with. My Opa (the Dutch name for grandfather), was a carpenter, and he built me a wooden Barbie wardrobe to house all my Barbies’ outfits. It was one of my prized possessions.

I also played hockey with my brother and his friends. I never cared about getting dirty or sweaty; my influential role model was my father, a businessman. Barbie didn’t define me; she was just one of the things I loved. To this day, I still love to carry a Barbie pink purse and dress up in a little bit of glamour when the opportunity arises. I also shine brightly in the boardroom. You don’t have to be one or the other.

It’s that message that Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster movie has brought to the fore. I was profiled in Janice McDonald’s 2020 book Fearless: Girls with Dreams, Women with Vision, and I may have been channelling Gerwig’s version of Barbie in my interview when I said, “Be fearless—use your confidence to embrace change. Be independent-minded and stand up for what you believe. Have the courage to do the right thing and be ethical. Be brave, be decisive and be determined.”

As America Ferrara’s Barbie character laid out so clearly in her “It is literally impossible to be a woman” monologue, society’s expectations of women are full of contradictions and impossibilities. And yet, in the Barbie World, women do “do it all,” holding a very important role in society. By the end of the movie, the message has been heard loud and clear: being a woman is full of contradictions, and that’s okay. Part of the beauty of being a woman is that we don’t have to fit into anyone’s mould. We can achieve great things, especially when we support each other.

Still, This Challenge Requires Sustained Effort

Having an impactful message in a movie doesn’t make it happen overnight, though. That’s why sustaining our efforts is so important.

In 2005, Norway legislated that company boards had to be 40% women. That prescriptive method works, no doubt about it: In 2020, the European Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index identified Norway as the second top country in terms of board diversity, with 42% of directors being women, exceeded only by France, which had instituted its quota system in 2017 and now sat at 43% women.

In Canada, we instead have a “comply-and-explain” regime. There are recommendations and guidelines, but no specific quotas and consequences for not meeting them. While a quota system might be a faster way to get there, I believe our current regime presents a better opportunity to enact meaningful, sustainable change.

Often, with “big” societal goals, we set target dates so far away that it clearly shows we don’t think the current generation can get there. When I hear someone say we should aim to achieve gender parity by 2050, that we will do it incrementally, bit by bit, I honestly find it disappointing. How can we have such low expectations of ourselves? We should never relegate ourselves to small, incremental change.

Women currently hold 26% of board seats on TSX-listed companies. That’s only halfway to gender parity, but what’s inspiring is that this number is up from just 10% in 2015. The number of women on Canadian boards has more than doubled in under ten years! What makes us think we need nearly thirty more to double it again? I’m confident that we can make it to 50% by 2030… without legislating it.

A Duty to Elevate the Next Generation of Women

In 2022, I was thrilled to be awarded SustainabilityX Magazine’s inaugural Global 50 Women in Sustainability award.  This award prompted me to make sustain one of my 2023 words: I knew I had to live up to the award’s promise.

What I said in my interview with the magazine rings 100% true: “As women leaders, we have a civic duty to elevate the next generation of women leaders by advocating for their economic empowerment and financial freedom so they can make independent decisions. We can achieve this empowerment through education, mentorship and allyship.”

Advancing a Board Diversity Mandate

To help move the needle on this goal, we recently published a WGOB E-Guide called “Board Diversity Matters: How to Build Diversity on Your Board.” In it, we list ten questions that every board should ask themselves about their diversity mandate. By asking these questions, we’re advocating for actions that companies need to embed into their DNA to achieve sustainable diversity. They include renewal mechanisms such as age and term limits to ensure boards are continually refreshed and looking outside your network when searching for board candidates.

Again, it’s about changing the culture from the inside, not mandating change from the outside. This is incredibly important if we want to make these changes sustainable.

Challenging the Status Quo

So no, I don’t buy into a 2050 goal of having 50/50 gender parity on boards. Accepting 2050 as the goal is to accept complacency, to assume we will continue the status quo, adding a diverse board candidate here and there. We can do better than that.

We need to change how we think about board members. Nominating and corporate governance committees must look beyond former CEOs and CFOs. They must consider bringing in CHROs, cyber security, IT, ESG, diversity leaders, and more. That data shows that having more women on a board drives better performance, stronger ethics, and more. So, we need to broaden the board’s skill matrix, opening up more opportunities for women and strengthening a board’s performance.

We need to broaden our networks and provide tools, education and support to help elevate women. I speak to board-ready women every day, and I am inspired by how many are out there. By helping women build networks and establish support systems, we can get them onto the radars of executive search firms as well as nominating and corporate governance committees’ in order to build a strong pipeline for the next generation of women corporate directors.

Women Empowering Women: WGOB Member Monthly Meetups

One of the ways we do this is by running WGOB Member Monthly Meetups virtually for members looking for board work and support in their board journey. We give women a chance to practice their “ask,” as we know, women have traditionally been less forward about their requests than men. We’re empowering women to boldly say, “I’m looking for this type of board.” The first step of getting on a board is letting people know you want to be there.

We also actively encourage current serving women board members, especially chairs, to lead in cultivating their successors and tapping on their shoulders. That could mean working their network, but often it means making a concerted effort to go beyond that, working with an external search firm or with WGOB, to ensure a diverse slate of candidates is identified.

The Power of Three

On May 30, 2023, WGOB was honoured by the CWE Recognition Awards in the “Gender Equality in the Workplace” category, recognizing our work to support women in senior leadership roles and get more women on corporate boards. Here’s an excerpt from my acceptance speech:

“As Founder & CEO of Women Get On Board Inc., I am proud of our social purpose company’s accomplishments and strides toward empowering women through education, mentorship and allyship. … We believe in The Power of Three—one woman in the boardroom is a token, two is a presence, and three is a voice. … I am privileged to lead a social purpose company that amplifies the voices of women leaders, board members and professionals across Canada by connecting, promoting and empowering them on their board journeys.”

Someone recently commented that having a voice shouldn’t take three women. I agree, it shouldn’t, but that’s the reality. More women equals a stronger voice, and I’m committed to getting us there.

Some Companies Have Figured It Out

We do need to celebrate the fact that some TSX-listed companies have already achieved gender parity. In Osler’s 2022 Diversity Disclosure Practices report, they cite 35 TSX-listed companies who’ve done it (see pages 45–46)!

Ontario Power Generation (OPG) is a shining example of a public-sector board that’s achieved it. Chaired by a leading and serving corporate director, Wendy Kei, the board at OPG now has over 50% women.

“Having been on boards as the only female director, I understand the importance of diversity. Boards need to take that leap for diversity on boards. This is what will transform a good board into a great one.”

  • Wendy Kei, FCPA-FCA, F.ICD.D, Corporate Director and Chair of the OPG Board

And an example of a private company that’s even closer to my heart: I am personally chairing an all-female board at Profound Impact. I am proud to be at the helm of this inspiring group of women leaders.

Dare to Be the Best Version of Yourself

So we’re getting there through the sustained action of a community of women and men committed to advancing more women on boards. I dream that one day, this won’t be something we need to discuss or consider—it’ll just be the status quo.

When I was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws at my alma mater, Brock University, earlier this year, I told the students in the crowd, “Be the best version of yourself, dare to pursue your dreams and passions, and positively impact the world around you.”

And if you want to do it with a pink purse in hand, all the more power to you. I’ll be there beside you, channeling Barbie and fearlessly pursuing my dream for women everywhere.