Erica Pinsky



Are We There Yet? - Women, Position, & Power

 available as a PODCAST

First in an interview series... an interview with Anne Kinvig


Call me naïve but when I entered the workforce in the 1980s, I thought gender equity was a done deal.   The “women’s libbers” had marched. Bras had been burned.  The movement had ensured that women could move out of the kitchen and into corporate boardrooms.


When I started to work in human rights in the mid 90s I began to appreciate just how wrong I had been. While 70% of Canadian women with children under six years old are now working, (more than double the 31.4% in 1976), not very many of those women are making it to the C-suite.


A recent Conference Board of Canada report showed that very little progress has been made in the last 20 years. Despite the fact that women hold the majority of university degrees, the ratio of men to women in senior leadership positions is still more than 2 to 1. Only 3% of Fortune 500 companies are run by women.  Women hold only 14% of Canadian board positions.


This issue has been the topic of much discussion and research.  There can be no doubt that systemic factors are affecting the ability of women to climb the corporate ladder and that those need to be addressed.  Lately, however, I have been wondering what other factors might be contributing to the experience of women, position & power.


I became curious as a result of my work dealing with power based behaviours like bullying and harassment. Women tend to be on the receiving end of the majority of these complaints.  One of the main reasons for this is that women make easy targets.  We take it.  We don’t Speak Up.  We avoid conflict.  In effect we contribute to our own victimization, albeit unknowingly.  We have conflicted relationships with our own power which causes us to bully other women.


Now sisters, before you start sending me hate mail, let me assure you that my interest is in figuring out how to end both bullying  and inequality: for women and everyone else.  My experience is that the best way to figure this stuff out is by being curious and asking questions.  I decided to sit down with 4 women who beat the odds and made it to senior corporate positions, (outside of Human Resources), to get their perspectives in the hopes it might shed some light on this issue and offer some guidance for those of us interested in finishing the work started way back in the sixties.


This article highlights some of what my first guest Anne Kinvig COO of Pacific Blue Cross & BC Life shared in her interview.  This is the first in the series, which will continue once a quarter throughout 2012.    I invite you to listen to the entire 35 minute interview.




Anne Kinvig is currently the COO of Pacific Blue Cross & BC Life. Pacific Blue Cross is BC’s largest provider of health and dental benefits.  The organization has 750 employees serving 8000 employer groups, as well as 60,000 individual plan customers.  They offer health, dental and insurance products.


Ms. Kinvig and I were colleagues in the labour department at Canadian Airlines. Around the time I left to strike out on my own, Ms. Kinvig made the move to work at PBC as the Vice President of  Human Resources. After 14 years she had progressed to become Chief Operating Officer.


 It is worth noting that where women occupy senior corporate positions, they tend to be within Human Resources/Employee Relations.  It is also worth noting that very few CEO’s come from those areas.


I asked Ms. Kinvig how she managed to make the transition from VP HR to COO. Here’s what I discovered.


AK – “My CEO was starting to contemplate the succession plan for his position and asked if I was interested.  I laughed and said I can’t do that job. My transition  came about through a lot of dialogue with him. He was very encouraging and prodding – well why do you think you can’t do that job?   He saw a lot of potential in me.  My initial instinct was that I didn’t have sufficient financial savvy, and I think that could be true of other women.   It was that conversation that planted the seed in my head and I started thinking yes, why can’t I? I could have a career outside of human resources.


I stuck myself in this box and it had never crossed my mind.  My natural instinct was I am not capable of doing that.  I was really limiting myself. I think that is an area that needs improvement.  Women don’t sell themselves.  A male probably would have expressed an interest and taken the initiative to do that whereas women stand back.”


    Lesson for leaders

– Ms. Kinvig’s  response confirms what I learned in my research for Road to Respect.  Women, as well as members of visible minorities, typically do not self-identify for senior leadership positions.  Simply put, they don’t Speak Up.  Ken Martin, CEO of PBC modelled best practices by initiating and continuing the discussion with Ms. Kinvig.  All of the Employers of Choice featured in Road to Respect require  similar kinds of conversations  between leaders and their direct reports.  This is a proactive strategy that ensures that internal talent is identified, supported and developed for effective leadership succession planning.


    Lesson for women

– Ladies, work is not dating.  We don’t have to wait for the man to ask.  If we are interested in a position, we need to Speak Up. In addition, we need to ensure that we are acting as our own advocate.  Watch your self-talk.  Might you, like Ms. Kinvig, be limiting your possibilities?


As Ms. Kinvig pointed out, a solid understanding of business financials is a pre-requisite for anyone interested in climbing the corporate ladder.  Women interested in senior leadership positions should be proactive in ensuring that they acquire the skills and experience they need in this area.


I asked Ms. Kinvig to comment on how she believed gender had influenced her career.


AK – “I don’t believe that gender has affected my career, but I do believe that women at the beginning and mid part of their career need to work harder than men to demonstrate their worth.   I put in lots of hours and focused on results, whereas it seemed like my male counterparts didn’t have to work quite as hard.  Early on in my career I did see wage discrimination. (men in comparable positions were getting paid more than she was).  I think part of that is whether you are promoted from within versus being recruited from the outside.  But to demonstrate my ability I do think I put in a lot of hours, and perhaps that was my own bias.”


I asked Ms. Kinvig to comment on the wage disparity that she experienced, which is in fact reflective of the current reality. Women on average still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. Starting salaries of male MBA’s are typically $4500.00 higher than that of female MBA’s.* Her comment was that while these factors certainly play a part, this disparity is “Perhaps exacerbated by the fact that, just as we were talking about with respect to position, women don’t assert themselves with respect to salary.”


    Lesson for leaders

– Equal pay for work of equal value is supposed to be the law. It isn’t. Wage disparity exists in virtually every industry and every sector.  The biggest wage gap in the U.S. is in the Financial Activities industry, with women earning 70.5 cents for every dollar men make. How do your compensation policies stack up?  Might these policies be affecting your ability to attract and retain the best talent?


    Lesson for women

–  Ms. Kinvig’s comment that women don’t assert themselves with respect to salary is borne out in the research. We tend to undervalue ourselves. We are often uncomfortable talking about money or asking for what want.  The bottom line here is that if we chose to remain silent, if we continue to accept less money, we will continue to receive it. Find out what the going rate is for the position you want, then step into your power and ask for it.


My next question for Ms. Kinvig was about her experience as a woman in a position of power, and whether she believed gender was a factor in how she was perceived by others.


AK – “I do agree that there is a tendency to label women leaders differently than men. If you are collaborative and engage in team based decision making, they view you to be weak and not in control of the situation. If you take control you are labelled a bitch, and I don’t think the same is true for men.  Men can also be collaborative and team based but I don’t think they would be viewed to be weak. They would be viewed to be a good leader.  I think there are differences in the way women and men lead.”


    Lesson for leaders

– As I discuss in Road to Respect, we all have biases and prejudices, many of which we are unaware of.  The problem arises when these unconscious biases affect our perceptions, judgements and decisions about those we work with. Are you judging, or interpreting  a women’s behaviour differently simply because she is a woman?  Is that in the best interests of your business outcomes?  At the end of the day it is about identifying the qualities of leadership that work,  determining which qualities contribute to the most effective leadership style, gender aside.


    Lesson for women

– Women can lead differently than men, but Ms. Kinvig’s experience is that because senior leaders, CEO’s, have traditionally been male, there are certain expectations with respect to how an individual in a CEO position behaves.  If you want to lead differently, it helps to clarify your intention, to talk about your leadership style so that people are not left to make their own assumptions on the basis of their expectations of what you should or shouldn’t be doing.


AK – “Perhaps when women have a different approach to similar situations it would be worthwhile to state the intention, (for example) I am prepared to make a decision but my preference is to work as a team and come up with the best solution.”


My next question focused on the research that establishes that having children is a career liability for women interested in senior positions.


AK – “I don’t have first hand experience as I don’t have children but I can imagine how difficult it would be to have even more competing priorities. Women, and perhaps this could be self-imposed as well, want to be great at their jobs, a great mother to their children, a good wife to their husband, a good daughter and sibling. They care about the family unit. Oftentimes they take responsibility for making sure the family gets together, they become the glue in the mix. There are so many different roles it is very hard to do it all well.  Myself, it would have been difficult for me to work harder, to put in more long hours if I had had children at home.”


While she was not sure what it would take to equalize the playing field, or if it was even possible,  “One of the values that I know is important is to be with an employer that has flexible work practices.” Ms. Kinvig talked about her experience when her mother became ill. “I had great flexibility to be at the hospital when I needed to be. I could work at night. I made sure I got things done but I had complete flexibility in terms of how I did that.”


She went on to say that this was something that was really important to her and would influence her decision to move to another organization.


AK – “A lot of search firms have approached  me. I have had some good opportunities, but I think that the flexibility that my boss has shown me in a senior position caused me to choose to stay.  He allowed me to do what I needed to do because family is so critically important.  I know how much value I placed on that and I am sure that other employees feel the same way.  People make decisions not on their salaries and benefits. It is that intrinsic thing that is hard to define.”


    Lesson for leaders

– Research supports Ms. Kinvig’s experience that it is that “intrinsic thing,” an organization’s cultural norms and whether those norms cause people to feel valued and respected that determine if great talent is attracted and retained.


Offering flexibility in terms of when and how employees get their work done is another best practice among employers of choice. At PBC, where 80% of the employees are female, flex time policies are available for all employees. Unionized employees work a 35 hour work week with flex time, which include shifts ending at 3 so that employees are able to pick up their children after school. Managers have the ability to make a request to work at home.


AK – “As long as it does not impact the business we look favourably on that.”


    Lesson for women

– If workplace flexibility is important to you, make a choice to Speak Up about it.  Arm yourself with the research that clearly establishes the bottom line benefits of creating a workplace culture that respects the whole person at work.  Present the business case. Take a look at the Employers of Choice I feature in Road to Respect, or others I have featured in this e-news, including  Zappos, Nurse Next Door, North Shore Credit Union and Heritage Law.


My next question focused on the unfortunate reality of women bullying other women in the workplace.


AK – “I know that to be true. That is true in our workplace. I don’t know why. I find it quite shocking actually.  I have seen it. I don’t think I have ever seen a man bully a women, it is always a woman bullying a woman. I do believe that predominantly female workforces can be more difficult to manage, both for male and female leaders. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a more balanced gender mix in  a department.”


I asked Ms. Kinvig to comment on what she thought it was that made groups of women more difficult to manage, not with an interest in “gender bashing” but simply to explore the issue in more depth. “What comes to mind is catty. I don’t know how to describe that. Even mature women don’t act very mature. They don’t know how to resolve conflict, they pick on one another, they gossip. As you know gossip is an issue in the workplace which we have tried to deal with. It is challenging and it can be very harmful.”


We went on to talk about how to manage these issues at work. PBC is actively working on promoting a psychologically healthy workplace.


AK – “We were one of the pilot groups to participate in the Guarding Minds at Work survey. It helps focus areas of improvement to make the workplace healthier.  One of our lower scores was on respectful workplace. This relates to our predominantly female workforce and women behaving inappropriately with other women: making them uncomfortable and causing distress. It is challenging to deal with inappropriate behaviours between co-workers from a manager’s perspective because oftentimes they don’t know what is happening and they are only aware when the damage is done, when someone has gone off on sick leave or disability. People remain quiet. Even when the manager is aware it can be hard to manage because it is not linked to their productivity or their outputs. It is about their behaviour on a team, and for a number of reasons I think that is more challenging for managers to deal with.”


    Lesson for leaders

– It is important for leaders to realize that if you have large groups of women in your workplace, chances are you are going to experience this phenomenon.  Gender makes a difference.  It is not discriminatory to talk about this or adopt a different approach when dealing with groups of women than you might when dealing with groups of men. Diversity is the new reality, a business reality that needs to be managed.  It is about looking at how difference affects the workplace and reacting accordingly.


AK – “Where you need to be as an employer is make sure that managers are aware that you expect them to deal with it. There is zero tolerance around disrespectful behaviour.  Make sure that they are provided with training and support so that they do deal with it because it can really change the dynamics of a team when there is unhealthy behaviour. That has to be dealt with just as much as a performance issue.”


    Lesson for women

– Many of the behaviours that women engage in relative to other women are habitual and reflect norms that are reinforced in society. It’s time that we as women start thinking about, talking about, and determining what behaviours really serve us as women. Does avoiding a direct conversation with someone we are in conflict with serve us?  Does gossip serve us?  Does focusing on what powerful women look like rather than on what they do support our ability to have access to power?  It is important that we start to talk openly about our conflicted relationship with our own power as well as the myths and stereotypes that work to keep us from stepping into, and manifesting our power respectfully.


My last question focused on what Ms. Kinvig  might want to say if she had the opportunity to speak to a group of male CEOs and a group of ambitious Gen Y women.


AK – “I don’t think I would address a group of male CEO’s about gender differences. To me that would sound a little bit like whining.  I have gotten ahead based on my own merits, and I would be in front of them on the basis of my own merits.  Where I would try to champion the cause would be around improved diversity with corporate boards.  I just completed a 24 month mentoring program with Women on Board.  There has been a ton of research that suggests a correlation between high performing organizations and increased diversity on a corporate Board. A number of European countries have legislated a minimum number of women on Boards.  I wouldn’t want us to go there, because I would hate to be appointed because I am a token female, but I would like to see corporate boards have a broader representation of the population because there is a lot of talent out there. Often you hear oh there are no good ones, or they don’t have enough experience, but again I think this is because we haven’t promoted ourselves and we don’t have the same networks.  So I think I would focus on the governance side of having more women on Boards if I was addressing a group of male CEOs.  It makes good business sense.  Women make most of the consumer decisions, so many of these Boards, if they are missing a female’s voice, may be missing the biggest part of their market share.”


    Lesson for women

– With respect to labelling, I would be ignoring all that noise. I think it is distracting, particularly for women. We need to focus on making sure the work we do has meaning and purpose. You have to be passionate about the work you are doing. I think you can achieve a lot if the work gives you meaning. I wouldn’t be overly concerned about how people perceive you.  As we talked about earlier, women stand back. Figure out what you want to do and go for it. I think having a high level of self-awareness, an openness to feedback, as well as the desire to continuously learn are really important. If you bring that to it – anything is possible.


* www.catalyst.org/publication/217/womens-earnings-and-incomeLessons for women

"In her book, Erica provides a wake-up call for employers by detailing why respect, as a core value, is so imperative. She then provides a persuasive argument why organizations should embark on the road map to respect. Particularly compelling are her personal workplace anecdotes as well as the case studies featuring some of the largest companies in Canada, who are getting respect right."

Melanie Sklarz
Diversity and Respect Coordinator
Edge Learning of Ohio RespectfulWorkplace.com