This month, I have been reflecting on what it means to be a women + leader + racialized in the world we live in today. The world continues to be in turmoil and challenges abound, multiplying the burdens of leadership—being responsible for the impact of every word and decision on those you serve, while living with the real and perceived power-distance inherent in leadership roles, which leads to isolation at the top. How do women leaders who are continually grappling with the glass ceiling, sustain the courage to lead? And if the inequity of the glass ceiling, metaphorically referring to the barriers to career advancement for women isn’t enough, there is the glass cliff—that phenomenon where the racialized woman or other person from an underrepresented group is given an impossible leadership job in times of crisis and complexity, with increased odds of failure. Many see these glass cliff opportunities as their only chance at advancement and must weigh the risk of falling over the cliff against the hope that they might make the jump into the senior leadership ranks to stay. How do racialized women leaders, who say yes to leadership roles in the face of a glass cliff, find success?

There are no easy answers to these questions and where there are some answers, they likely vary by context and complexity. But one thing I do in search of inspiration is actively remember where we have come from and where we are now as a source of inspiration for the future.

I looked back at the timeline of women’s rights and women trailblazers in Canadian history for a view of what has been. This timeline is by no means complete, but I was struck again by how much is taken for granted reality today that hasn’t always been so, in terms of women’s constitutional, labour and human rights in Canada.

  • 1916 – Women in Manitoba became the first in Canada to win the right to vote
  • 1918 – Some women were granted the right to vote in federal elections
  • 1929 – Women were declared persons
  • 1960 – All Canadian women given the right to vote including First Nations women previously denied this right.
  • 1971 – The Canadian Labour Code amended to prohibit discrimination on grounds of sex and marital status, the principle of equal pay for equal work and the provision of maternity leave.
  • 1977 – The Canadian Human Rights Act passes forbidding discrimination on grounds of sex and equal pay for equal work for women.
  • 2001 – Canadian Human Rights Commission recommends a pay equity system and task force to address pay equity was appointed.

There has no doubt been progress and at the same time, there is a journey still ahead. In the 20+ years since Canada formally started tackling pay equity, for example, the pay gap decreased by 7.7 percentage points between 1998 and 2021. However, we know that even with women’s participant in the labour force in Canada continually increasing (now at 76.5%), the gender pay gap persists with women making 89 cents for every dollar for men and racialized women making even less, in the range of 55 – 60% of what white men make. So, what are the inspirations to be a women + leader + racialized in the face of all this?

Fundamentally, I say, it is because all the women in the history timeline did not give up, so that we could be here and it is our time to persevere on behalf of the next generations. Coincidentally, I met two of the “First” women noted on the Canadian history timeline from 1993, just this year. Jean Augustine, first Black Canadian woman elected to the House of Commons and Kim Campbell, the first and to-date the only woman Prime Minister of Canada. On being Firsts, they both have been quoted reminding us we ought not to rest on any laurels:

  • I’d be prouder still to say I was Canada’s 10th woman prime minister. Kim Campbell
  • I consider it [being named the first Black woman in the House of Commons] important in the scheme of things, we were in this country since the 1600s, so me being the first black woman elected into the House of Commons I didn’t see it as a personal victory, it’s a victory for all of us. Jean Augustine
Jean Augustine (sitting 2nd from right) with leaders and organizers at a 100 ABC Women event, September 2023 and meeting Kim Campbell at the International Leadership Association Global Conference, October 2023

I’ve also spent time this year interviewing Black women leaders, learning in a community of racialized women in leadership and a We Will Lead Africa Griots group that is predominantly Black African women. From these communities and from the women I coach/mentor and who coach/mentor me, I am ending this women’s history month with the reminder that leading in this era is not easy but as one of them recently said to me “life keeps lifeing, and the world keeping spinning upside down, but we must keep going.” These women and communities remind me that to survive and thrive in this era, we must operate with a different awareness and higher-order understanding of the challenges and rewards of what being a women + leader + racialized means.

Calling: One woman said to me, “in the beginning, I was ready to throw my hands up and leave, but then I thought, everyone is expecting me to fail, but I am called to be here and do this work now so I have to keep going.” What are you called to and how can you renew your sense of calling when the going gets tough?

Courage: Being a women + leader + racialized unfortunately means dealing with higher levels of incivility and disrespect, and calls for higher levels of resilience and grit to keep leading despite these experiences. As Kim Campbell wrote in her introduction to the book, Nerve, co-authored by two other first women university presidents, Martha Piper and Indira Samarasekera: “Nerve is often used for a brand of courage to which the woman in question is not deemed to be entitled as in “she has a lot of nerve.” Nerve is not just courage per se, but, specifically, the courage to do something…I think an important factor in explaining the frequent lack of nerve in women is their understanding that, failure will not necessarily be just a part of the process of learning and growing in their leadership role but could just as likely end it…the risks of leading are greater for women than for men” (p. x). How do you continually sustain your courage to lead in these times?

Community: One radical shift women leaders make once they can break the cycle of oppressions that often puts them in competition with each other, is supporting each other. One leader summarized their experience in a leadership community as lifegiving because they had space to be fully seen while “taking notes for my life” from being in a trusted sisterhood with others. In the context of leadership isolation, where there are very few spaces where you can be seen, heard and understood without the distortion of leadership roles, this safe space outside the context of your day-to-day leadership is essential. If you don’t yet have one, where can you find your community of professional sisterhood today?