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Joan C. Williams, a globally-renowned thought leader on the challenges women face in the workplace, spoke at a panel discussion on Thursday hosted by Sauder Professor Jennifer Berdahl, Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Women and Diversity.

“Men tend to be judged on their potential, women on their past performance,” Williams told the crowd, explaining the double standards female job candidates face when they lose out to male candidates who are no more qualified, but are seen as having potential.

Williams is a Distinguished Professor of Law and Hastings Foundation Chair at the University of California, and she has gained substantial acclaim for her most recent book, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Every Woman Should Know. She was joined by a panel of business leaders who shared their personal experiences about four problematic areas that Williams outlines in her book: “prove-it-again,” “the tightrope,” “the maternal wall,” and “the tug-of-war”.

Joan C. Williams

Tracey McVicar, managing partner at CAI Private Equity and alumna of Sauder’s BCom program, said she’s well aware of the “prove-it-again problem,” in that women have to continue prove their value to be recognized. She’s one of a handful of women in British Columbia who are on male-dominated corporate boards, and she said the successes – or failures – of women in such positions are often seen to represent the merits of all women in business.

“If one of us screws up, it’s really bad for all the women who want to get there,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure. But if one guy screws up, it’s just that guy.”

She said that when she joined the board of Teck Resources, another woman was appointed at the same time – but she made sure the company wasn’t just trying to even out the gender balance. “I told them, if they thought I was the best woman for the job, I didn’t want it,” she said.

Christine Day, CEO of burgeoning health food venture Luvo and former CEO of Lululemon, gave her take on Williams’ ideas of the “tightrope” women walk between appearing masculine to fit in – which makes them respected but not liked – or being seen as too feminine and being liked but not respected. She also shared a story from a past job when her male colleagues would ask her to help them prepare for presentations, and then get credit for her work. So she stopped helping them, and started getting noticed more and more for her own successes.

Rhonda Hymers, vice president, portfolio manager and wealth advisor at RBC Wealth Management and Dominion Securities, discussed how women face a “maternal wall” as they’re seen as having less time for their jobs as soon as they become mothers. “Work-life balance is a teeter-totter in constant motion,” she said, adding that she thinks women can have it all – they just don’t need to do it all, as she says it’s important to let go of the small things.

Gail St. Germain, executive vice president of human resources at HSBC, talked about the “tug-of-war” many women experience as they face criticism from other women. “I’ve observed that as women become more successful, they become disliked,” she said.

But she said women shouldn’t let that dissuade them, as times are changing. “Walk in, sit down, and take up more room at the table, because the tides have turned,” she said.

The event, held at Vancouver’s Four Seasons Hotel, was packed with business leaders and recent graduates, many of whom nodded along to the challenges discussed, indicating they, too, had encountered the various issues.

“I know that if we all work together, we can make change and combat biases that impede gender-balanced leadership,” said Laura McGowan, a representative of RBC Wealth Management, the event’s presenting sponsor. “We are thrilled to be able to work with such a respected leader as Jennifer Berdahl and find solutions.”

Sauder’s Dean Robert Helsley was also on hand, and acknowledged the importance of Berdahl’s work in strengthening Sauder as a centre for excellence for the study of equity in business. “Together, I truly believe that we have an opportunity to change thinking, to change practice, and to change the culture of business in our community,” he said.

The event was part of the community outreach mandate of Berdahl’s professorship. Berdahl is also leading an ongoing working group called Work as a Masculinity Contest, alongside scholars from around the world – including Williams – who are sharing findings and ideas on masculine norms in the workplace. Another part of her professorship has been the establishment of a Women’s Leadership Advisory Council at Sauder, which includes both McVicar and Day.

“Only through systematic study can we identify otherwise-hidden patterns of bias and behaviour and identify how best to prevent, interrupt and address them,” Berdahl said about her professorship.