Erica Pinsky



 available as a PODCAST

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

Third in an interview series ... an interview with Faye Wightman


”My boss at the airline managed us in a respectful manner.
At the time, however, I never thought about it.  I just knew I really liked working for her.”


Chapter 7 of Road to Respect, (Respectful Leadership) starts by highlighting the leadership style of my former boss.  Although I retired from the airline in 1998, my relationship with my ex-boss Brona Cole , who no longer lives in Vancouver, has continued.  She is a trusted colleague, mentor and friend.


Over the years Brona repeatedly mentioned Faye Wightman, President & CEO of the Vancouver Foundation, to me and recommended that we connect.  We finally met last summer. The fact that we were both widowed at a young age was one of many commonalities I discovered between us.  When I heard her fascinating story I knew that she was someone I wanted to interview for this series.


I have captured some highlights of our interview for you in this month’s article.
To get the full story, please listen to the entire


On her career journey

Ms. Wightman’s career path was shaped by the untimely death of her physician husband.  She chose to return to university so that she could teach nursing and have a more predictable schedule than she did as a clinical nurse working shifts on the open heart unit.


However, as so often happens in life, that plan never materialized. While at school she did some volunteer work with the Red Cross which led to a job offer as the Director of Health Services for BC and Yukon.


It was a subsequent opportunity at the Red Cross which propelled Ms. Wightman into a career as a professional fundraiser.  She was offered the opportunity to run a child abuse prevention program that the provincial government had dropped.  Problem was there was no national money available to fund it.   She was told that she could offer the program under the Red Cross banner if she could raise the money to fund it.” Never having raised money in my life I thought, how hard can it be? So I started and in fact it was relatively easy. I think when you’re passionate about something and you care about it, it is easy to demonstrate that passion to others and ask for support.”


After that the United Way came calling. “I was approached by the United Way of the Lower Mainland to become their campaign director.  I had really never thought about a career as a fundraiser.  I didn’t even really know that fundraisers got paid for doing their work.  But I decided, well, what the heck.  I remember saying to them I know nothing about fundraising. Why would you want me?  And they said Well, we’ve been watching you and you’ve got good management skills. You bring your management skills and we’ll teach you about fundraising.”


Her next move was running Development, PR and Volunteer Services at BC Children’s Hospital. From there to the University of Victoria as Vice President of External Relations.  Her current position at the Vancouver Foundation, involves managing a team of 48 staff, a board of 15, several hundred volunteers combined with responsibility for 750 million dollars, 50 – 60 million of which, each year, goes back to communities in BC.


On how gender has affected her career progression

Gender has been both a benefit and a challenge to Ms. Wightman.  She is the first woman to hold her current job and was also the first woman on the Executive at the University of Victoria.  It may have been an interest in increasing diversity that caused her to be considered as a candidate.  “One of the questions I was asked when I was interviewed for the University of Victoria was how I would feel about being the only woman on the Executive and therefore representing women on the team.  My response was that I sincerely hoped that they were hiring me because I was the best candidate for the position, not because I was a woman.  I don’t see myself as being hired to represent women.  I see myself as a person who is able to do a great job.  The fact that I am a woman might bring certain characteristics to the job, but I am not there to represent women.”


Lessons for Leaders – Watch out for bias. “The bias is that women make decisions based upon emotions. In interviews I would downplay the emotional components of leadership.  I had to demonstrate that I was capable of being objective in making business decisions; that I knew how to read financial statements; that I have the characteristics that male employers, particularly of a certain generation, often think that women don’t possess.”


Get curious about whether or not unconscious biases are influencing your hiring decisions.  Focus on the individual as opposed to  gender.  Ask questions to uncover if an incumbent possesses the leadership qualities you are looking for, rather than assuming characteristics based upon the gender of an applicant.  Ensure that your hiring decision is based upon the actual, rather than the assumed qualities a candidate may possess.


Lessons for Women –  Women aspiring to work in the C-Suite should do their homework and be proactive throughout  the interview process.  “Know your audience.  Research the history of the organization. Some of the questions I ask are:  what are you looking for?  are you looking for someone to institute a change?  are you looking for a different kind of leader than the incumbent?


Get clear on what they are looking for so that you know if you have the necessary skills and characteristics that will allow you to really be yourself. Be clear on who you are, what your strengths are, where your power comes from and then ensure it is a good fit.”


On being a woman in a position of power

“Women in leadership positions are often suspect in terms of how they got to their position: some people still believe they used their sexuality or feminine traits.  And yet if a man does something similar there is never that same correlation, that assumption that he is using his sexuality.  I think it is a shame that women are labelled, but it is often a reality.


I have been told that I am very intimidating. Is it because I am a woman that they find me intimidating?  I can’t imagine they say that to male leaders.  Somehow if you are a woman in a position of power you are given a behavioural or a personality label, when it is really just a function of the job.  I am not sure we tend to classify men that way.  I think it is because often people don’t know how to deal with women in power. My job requires me to make tough decisions.  I am in a position of power.  But it’s a requirement of my job.  It is not who I am.”


Lessons for Leaders and Women – “Start teaching your sons, nephews, that next generation of men that all people are equal.  There are women leaders and there are male leaders.  There are strong women and weak women just as there are strong men and weak men. Stop labelling behaviour as having something to do with gender.”


Lessons for Women – Be prepared for and strategize as to how you will respond to gender based behaviour.  “I am at that point in my career where I will just call people on gender based behaviour.  But for some women who are just climbing the career ladder, they may not want to take the risk.”


Ms. Wightman shared a story about interviewing a prospective male board candidate during her tenure at Children’s Hospital.  In the  midst of the interview the candidate asked her about her marital status.  She responded by asking him what that had to do with the Board position, to which he responded “Oh I just want to know if you’re married or not.”  At that point the Board Chair, an older man, jumped in and said “ Oh didn’t we tell you? She comes with the package.”


While she knew that it was inappropriate and wrong, Ms. Wightman chose to ignore the comments, partly because she was quite certain speaking up and potentially embarrassing both of these men would result in her being labelled a “bitch.”  “There are times when you say I need to correct this and times when you say this is not something I am going to be able to battle against. As much as people might say you always need to stand up and correct these misperceptions, it may not always be in your best interest with respect to your career.”


Ms. Wightman cautions women to be strategic in terms of how, where, and when they speak up, and how they use their power. “Embarrassing people is often not the way to do it.  It often serves to entrench the behaviour and might damage your reputation.  I think the reality is when people use labels to define your behaviour, especially when they do it publicly, in the end they look foolish.”


Ms. Wightman also cautions women in the C-Suite to guard against adopting traditional or expected female behaviours, like being the first one to offer coffee or take the minutes.  It is often important to establish an equal footing when you are first meeting other male executives - that you are there in your own right. “I am not always the one that automatically gets up and gets the coffee.”


On Being a Mother in the C-Suite

Consistent with what we heard from Donna Wilson, VP, Industry Services & Sustainability at WorkSafeBC,  Ms. Wightman does not think that having children in and of itself is career limiting.


“Every career minded mother will have to decide at one time or another what percentage of her time goes to each element. At times it may be that you put 70% of your effort into your career and only 30% into your children.” Nor does making the choice to take time off and stay home with your children mean you won’t make it into the C-Suite. “When I am hiring if I hear that someone took time off to be with their children, I think great. I like your values.  It does not deter me from hiring them- I assume they have made a decision to now focus on their career.”


For Ms. Wightman having children is about choice, about life decisions. “It is never 50/50.  It just isn’t.  Decide that you will probably have a different kind of life if you want to work and raise children. Recognize that you are not going to be home all the time that you may want to be, taking care of your children.”


What is important is for women to realize and accept that one way or another, the choice to have children means that there will be sacrifices.  “Sometimes it isn’t even you that is making the sacrifice, it ends up being your children.  Looking back on it now I have no doubt that my family life and my children suffered as a result of how much I worked and put into my job.  I think that I could have been a better parent if I had not been so stressed from working and hadn’t worked the number of hours that I worked.  It’s tough.”


Lessons for Leaders – “As much as I have been able to see a lot of wonderful men share responsibility for homemaking and raising kids I have yet to actually ever see an equal balance.  In the majority of cases it is still the women doing the lion’s share.  I look at both my daughters who have wonderful men in their lives. They are great dads but there is no doubt that my daughters carry a heavier load in terms of raising the children and managing the house.”


Leaders can recognize this reality and fashion people practices accordingly.  Ms. Wightman learned that she felt a lot less guilty about working long hours when she was able to be present for her children’s school plays, concerts or sporting events.  At the Vancouver Foundation “ we have SPS (special purpose days) to give parents that flexibility.”


Lessons for Women – Understand  that the decision to have children means “you need to accommodate the fact that you have two full time jobs.  Develop the resources around you to help you deal with it; whether it is talking to other women to share issues and solutions, recognizing that you are going to feel a lot less guilty if you are able to be there on the important days, and talking to your employer.” Ms. Wightman advises women to be proactive and speak up about the kinds of accommodations that would support success at work and at home. “Just because you are in a workplace that doesn’t have (such policies) doesn’t mean you can’t lobby to make it happen.”


On Workplace Bullying

Ms. Wightman has seen bullying in the workplace by both women and men.  As to why the research shows that women are targeted in the majority of cases, she believes it may relate to that fact that women tend to have less positional power on the corporate power hierarchy.  From her perspective however, gender is not necessarily what we want to be focusing on with respect to this issue.


As opposed to putting the bulk of our efforts on dealing with the bullies, many of whom she believes are “just not nice people,” Ms. Wightman shares my perspective that we should focus on educating and empowering people to speak up, starting when they are children.  She shared a personal story of experiencing abuse in her first marriage, and how that caused her to realize that a critical piece of the solution lies with each individual.  “I like to say that I can’t change what happens to me, but I can change how I respond to it.  I had to go through a learning experience that was not at all pleasant in order to get to a point where I could say no, I am never going to let someone do that to me. We need to help people learn to say ‘that is not acceptable behaviour.’  You do not have to take that.  You  can walk away.  We need a lot more courses for women in abusive relationships and parents need to help their kids learn that abuse and bullying is not acceptable behaviour.”


Her message for Male CEOs of Fortune 500 companies

Recognize the business value of diversity.  Research has shown that groups that are mixed in terms of gender and age function better and produce superior bottom line results.  Ms. Wightman advises leaders to adopt strategies and practices to encourage that kind of interaction as well as working to support the promotion of women into senior positions.


Appreciate that “no matter how much we say it is a level playing field, it is actually not.”  It is in a CEO’s best interest to both realize and accommodate that to the extent possible, particularly with respect to adopting flexibilities to support working mothers (and working parents).  The result will be an employee that will be happier and able to progress farther.


Think about mentoring more women and appreciate that the benefit of mentoring goes both ways.  “There is a lot that they can learn from women in terms of different ways of approaching things.”


Her message for ambitious Gen Y women

“Don’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do.  Decide what you are passionate about at different stages of your life and go after it.”  That said, Ms. Wightman cautions young women to realize that “just because it may be possible for you to be a in a position of power, a CEO or VP, it is important for you to decide whether or not you want to do it.”


She believes that there is a lot of pressure on young women to strive for these positions. The message is that they have the right to these positions, supported by a sub-text that they can do it all and have it all.  “The reality is that it is hard.  I think the impression that has been created is that if they can’t do it all they’re failing.  I think that society, educational institutions and parents have subtly been giving young women that message. I believe that the whole premise that women can have it all is a bit of a fallacy- it’s tough to have it all and there is a price to pay.”


Rather than bow to the pressure, she advises young women to really think about whether or not they want the top leadership position.  “Realize that you have a choice-and that “success” is not always measured by having the top position in an organization.  Ask yourself, what’s important to me? What are my core values? What are my choices, and what are the implications for the various choices I have?  Decide what you want out of life and what will make you happy.  There are sacrifices that you make regardless of what choice you make so it is important to evaluate potential consequences and think things through before making any final career decisions.”


Her last thought is about self-care...

“Whatever decision you make, it is important that you take care of yourself;
 physically, mentally, spiritually as well as looking after your career.
Women tend to put everybody else first and themselves last.
You can’t be your best when you do that.”



"With the first of the baby boomers beginning to retire, businesses are making retaining and recruiting new talent a high priority.  Those that are ready to embrace this challenge will find Erica’s book, Road to Respect invaluable, as it lays the foundations of how to create a positive and efficient work environment that employees will not want to leave.  The best part is, it does not require a lot of financial capital: only the will to embrace the fundamental principles shared in this book."

Kamal Basra,

Sophia Financial Group

Raymond James Ltd.