Women and Leadership in Politics and Business


On July 5 at the Women’s Worlds Congress, female leaders from the public and private sector convened to talk about women and leadership in politics and business. The panel, made up of a group of successful, dynamic women, spoke to the audience about their path to success and the challenges they faced along the way.

Clare Beckton from Carleton University chaired the panel, which included:

Four impressive women, four different paths

Sheila Copps kicked off the panel, speaking in English and French, about the fact that breaking ceilings is an individual effort and a collective effort. This is something that she demonstrated as the first Canadian Member of Parliament to have a baby while holding political office. Over the course of her career, she experienced numerous scenarios where her work and her voice were diminished in the patriarchal political environment, including being called “baby” by another Member of Parliament in the House of Commons. Ms. Copps emphasized that when the younger generation is afraid of calling themselves feminists, we know we have a battle ahead of us. Her words of advice for women focused on three elements: Don’t put each other down, lift each other up and drill up to the collective that is women by working toward common goals.

Next, Sharon Ramalho, the Ontario Vice President for McDonald’s talked about her experience rising through the ranks at McDonald’s. She started with the company as a summer student when she was 15 years old and has worked her way up over the past 28 years, making her the first woman in McDonald’s Canada to make it from the crew room to the boardroom. She never experienced challenges and innuendos that Ms. Copps experienced and credited the work environment at McDonald’s for that, saying that women should “choose a company that you can go home at night, put your head on the pillow, and be proud that you work with them (not for them)”.

Addressing the audience in Inuktitut and English, Premier Aariak told the audience how she got where she is today. A lot of women are so busy being mothers, caretakers of home, volunteers in their community and so on that they do not have time to enter into politics even if they feel ready. Once her youngest child was 15 years old, Premier Aariak decided to see what type of a difference she could make in her territory. The government of Nunavut is a consensus style government and the members of the legislative assembly choose the speaker, the premier and the ministers from among the elected representatives. Premier Aariak was the only woman elected to the legislative assembly and she was chosen by her male colleagues to be the Premier and to lead their territory.

Dr. Mamta Gautam is a psychiatrist and owner of a business called Peak MD. She works with people in the medical community on issues of leadership. Early in her career as a psychiatrist, Dr. Gautam was asked to speak to a national meeting of a group of medical professionals on the topic of depression. She really connected with the audience and several doctors in attendance asked her if she would work with them as their psychiatrist. This led her to start a business, Peak MD, to help leaders in the medical community to prepare themselves mentally for the challenges that they are taking on. “Remain open to opportunities that come your way and embrace them,” was Dr. Gautam’s advice to the audience.


Each of the four women faced some challenges as they built their careers.

  • Ms. Copps mentioned the lack of mentors when she started out in politics. There is a huge history in mentorship and women have not yet taken advantage of this to the extent that they should. As we develop more women in leadership, there will be more mentors available to work with aspiring leaders. Dr. Gautam suggested that women seek out both female and male mentors, “Have many mentors, network, form alliances,” she advised.
  • Ms. Ramalho looks at challenges as ways to learn, sometimes by making mistakes. “Don’t always take the easy path,” she advised the audience, “Take risks and do something you’ve never done before.” She spoke about her decision to leave a very comfortable and easy life in Canada to go off to Russia to a very unknown culture and business challenge full of risks to help McDonald’s launch in that country.
  • There are more women physicians now than there were 25 years ago, but Dr. Gautam says that they still face the same challenges that they did then. The work of women is still dismissed, infantalized or sexualized. For example, a male colleague once told her “I understand how you can help so many of my colleagues. You just bat your big brown eyes at them and everything is okay.”

Believe in Yourself and Go For It!

Women are taught and socialized to be “good little girls” — don’t brag, don’t cause conflict, don’t get angry, don’t take credit — and this transfers into our workplace. To move past this, we have to stop being the “good little girl” and learn to promote ourselves, learn conflict resolution, raise our hand and offer to take on challenges and more. When she first had the idea for Peak MD, Dr. Gautam thought, “If it was a really good idea, wouldn’t someone have thought of it already?” But they hadn’t, and she had to get past that reservation in order to launch into her own business of helping leaders in the medical profession. You need to “believe in yourself,” she said.

The Elusive Work-Life Balance

According to Ms. Ramalho, we should focus on work-life management, instead of work-life balance. “Life before work,” she emphasized, “Create a life list, not a bucket list” because we should focus on living instead of on death. Things will not always be perfectly balanced at all times, and it is normal that there are times when life takes precedence and other times when work takes precedence.

Dr. Gautam faced a “take it or leave it” situation when she asked for accommodation while she had three small children at home and was trying to achieve work-life balance. She decided to “leave it” and that launched a new branch of her career. Dr. Gautam said that we can sometimes go through formal channels to get the changes made that we need within an organization. However, sometimes we can create the flexibility that we need through informal networks and partnerships inside an organization (e.g. covering for each other).

Focusing on ourselves, focusing on the collective

We all need to look out for individual issues, but we also need to look at the collective. Ms. Copps noted that there is no work-life balance because women do most of the work related to the home. We need to collectively understand the effect of sexism on public policy and the lacking work-life balance. At one point she thought she could achieve equality just by doing more herself and breaking the glass ceilings herself, but she now realizes that we need public policy changes that will make it easier for all women so that they do not have to carry an unfair portion of the load.

Vicky Smallman with the Canadian Labour Congress asked about the structural changes that are needed in society so that women can take on leadership roles. Premier Aariak emphasized that universal daycare is needed. It is needed not only for working women, but also for younger women so that they can finish their education because a lot of high school students in Nunavut are mothers. Ms. Copps says that 40% of voters elected a majority Conservative government that ran on a platform of not having a national daycare policy.

How can we get past the need to be people pleasers?

Dr. Gautam said it is natural to have self-doubts, whether you are a young woman starting out or a senior male executive. In order to tackle those doubts and get over them, we first need to understand that a lot of people feel that way. “Women need to understand that it is okay to have that feeling, but it isn’t okay to believe it,” Dr. Gautam explained.

Premier Aariak thanks the people who criticize her because she uses that information as a lesson to help her improve and do better next time.

Ms. Copps said that you need to develop a thick skin. Practice what you want to ask for in front of a mirror. Many politicians go door to door and never ask the person to vote for them. Make your case, stand strong, believe in the core value of what you are asking for and also learn how to fail. Girls are socialized to be “good girls,” and boys are socialized to go and smack each other on the field in sports and then pick up and move on. Girls need to learn how to do that too, she explained.

Ms. Beckton said that we need to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to like us, but if we like ourselves and are very passionate about what we want to achieve, then we can do what we set out to do.

When you are man and you are aggressive, you are going places. When you are a woman and you are aggressive, you’re a troublemaker. In order to address this problem, Ms. Copps said that it is important to build your alliances first before you try to change an organization. Don’t try to push for that change too quickly. Ensure that you get your buy-in first before you push forward.

Taking Inspiration from Women Leaders

Conferences like Women’s Worlds and panels like this one provide women with the inspiration and confidence that is needed to advance their own careers and to achieve their goals.

Did any of the advice from this panel resonate to you? From your experience, do you have any other advice for women who are trying to carve out a leadership path for themselves in politics or in business?

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Photo credit: Annie Urban

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Michelle J.
Michelle Johnson3 years ago

it's important to support organizations such as FINCA and Heifer that realize the importance of empowering women to economical sustain their families

Lisa B.
Elizabeth B.4 years ago

Thank you

Abbe A.
Azaima A.4 years ago

really good advice not to buy into the put downs.

Bryan S.
Bryan S.4 years ago

The more women we have in leadership positions...the better we will be as a country. Men have run the country into the ground...and it's time for a change in gender at the top. In the next election I will be voting for more WOMEN.

Britin Jackson
Past Member 4 years ago

Glad to hear it.

Irina Sarkisyan
Irina Sarkisyan4 years ago

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Akin Adelakun
Akin Adelakun4 years ago

Interesting Thank you.

Neal J.
Neal J.4 years ago

I applaud the women who have succeeded and distain the men who wish too hold them back...as the world grows smaller, so does the skrinking of man's mind toward women.

Shiori Y.
Shiori Y.4 years ago

I'm attending this conference, Women's Worlds 2011, too!

Danuta W.
Danuta Watola4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.