Erica Pinsky



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

 available as a PODCAST

Seventh in an interview series... an interview with  Janet Austin - CEO YWCA Metro Vancouver


Janet Austin was recommended as someone to interview for this series by a number of former participants.  In addition to being the CEO of the YWCA Metro Vancouver, “one of the largest and most diversified non-profits in Metro Vancouver, if not the whole country” Ms. Austin is the incoming Chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade and serves on the Board of the Canadian Pediatric Society, Big Sisters BC and the Telus Community Board, among others.


We recently met to talk about women, position and power,  I am pleased to be able to share the highlights with you here.  To get the full story, please listen to the entire interview.


On Her Journey to the C-suite

Ms. Austin framed her career journey as having had the “privilege” of serving in many different types of paid employment.


This one comment really sums up the impression I gathered during our interview.  My experience is that it reflects someone who is living their purpose, who aspires to ‘goals with soul.’


Take a moment to consider whether or not you might use that same phrase to describe the work that you do.  Many of us work because we “have to.”  My experience is that not all of us are fortunate enough to be doing work that is truly aligned with our values and our purpose.  In the pressurized cult of busyness, finding the time to step back and reflect on what is truly meaningful to us can be challenging.


It was Ms. Austin’s choice to do just that that led to her current position.  After working as a media spokesperson, a Provincial government employee responsible for property acquisition, design and construction of social housing projects, doing communications and community relations work, as well as work in regional planning, Ms. Austin went through a period of introspection.  “I thought about what had been most meaningful to me.  I asked myself what were the moments in work and in life that I felt most proud of.”  She came to the realization that much of that had flowed from work that she had done as a volunteer.  Her challenge became how to incorporate those kinds of experiences in her professional career.


The YWCA was an organization that Ms. Austin had always admired. Although she had not thought about perusing the role, the opportunity presented itself when she was approached by a head hunting firm.  It seemed like a very natural fit.


“I guess you could say I am the accidental CEO.  I am not a person that has planned my career in a very deliberate way.  I have always worked hard, and because people could rely on me to deliver a good product I found that at key stages in my career I would be tapped on the shoulder and asked would you like to do this over here, would you like to try something different.”


Lesson for Aspiring Leaders

Echoing what we heard from Sue Paish, CEO of LIfeLabs, the path to senior leadership does not have to be linear and defined at the outset.  Ms. Austin describes her journey as an example of how it is possible to take skills acquired in one context and apply those skills in a context that may seem radically different.  She believes that this broad and diverse experience has helped her to grow as a leader, a professional and “hopefully as a human being as well.”


On Gender and Career Progression

Ms. Austin shared a famous quote from Charlotte Whitten, feminist and first woman elected as mayor of a major Canadian city (Ottawa 1951).  Well known for her assertiveness and vicious wit, Ms. Whitten once said


"Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.


Luckily, this is not difficult."


While Ms. Austin stressed that she does not believe this quote applies to her, her experience, borne out by the facts, clearly shows women face barriers to leadership.


“Is it more difficult for a woman to rise? Yes and the stats bear that out.  It is pretty well understood that in the professional and corporate world we are not achieving gender equality in senior positions. Statistics Canada’s Women in Canada report shows a decline in women in leadership from 27% to 22%.  It is important to look at that and take it seriously.”


Like many of the other interviewees for this series, Ms. Austin has been in situations where she is the only woman in the room, or one of a few with other senior leaders.  “In order to be recognized you do have to work a little harder.  When you are the lone woman in the group, you are not part of the kind of networking that happens among a group of people that have common history.”


While she acknowledges she has had difficult moments, “it toughened me up in some respects,” and allowed her to realize that women who aspire to C-suite positions have to approach things differently. She attributes her success to “hard work, a certain amount of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and the support of some fabulous friends.”


On Women and Power

A crucial stop on the journey to the C-suite is reflecting on the type of leader you want to be.  This implies being strategic about how to use the power that comes with position.


“Part of my professional journey has been about finding a leadership style that works for me.”  Early in her career Ms. Austin was given direction to lead in a way that was antithetical to her natural instincts. “Looking back there are moments when I was harder on people than I needed to be and those are moments that I am not proud of.”


As a result of those experiences Ms. Austin became strategic in developing a personal leadership style aligned with her values.  She embraces what I frame as a respectful leadership style, which is about power with, rather than power over. “I don’t naturally move towards a competitive dynamic on a leadership team.  I like to work collaboratively and create a team environment.  It is important for me to treat people well; to treat people decently.  I am interested in building a good constructive working relationship with the people around me.  That is how I am comfortable working and it works for me.”


Her personal leadership style has not always been viewed favourably. “People have accused me of being a light weight because of the niceness factor. “Those comments have not caused Ms. Austin to re-evaluate her chosen leadership style.  “I try to do what is best for me and not worry about what other people say.  It is really the results that count at the end of the day.  I am not a person who has any difficulty making tough decisions.  I always try to do that with compassion, humanity and with respect for the people who are involved.”


Her advice to those that find themselves being asked to lead in a way that does not feel right to them is to, as I would frame it, step into your power and speak up respectfully; setting your boundaries while promising to deliver results.  She would counsel her younger self to say something like “What you need to be concerned about is the end result and the bottom line.  If I am not able to deliver that then let’s have that conversation.  Give me the chance to do it the way it makes sense for me.”


Ms. Austin believes it is important for leaders to “Trust your instinct. The decisions I most regret are those where I ignored a gut feeling because I had a good rational argument for doing something.  As I have matured I have become much more comfortable paying attention to that side of me and that is a good thing.  While you don’t want to rely totally on instinct, it is a point of reference that can validate your decision or prevent you from making a decision that might not be a good one.”


Lessons for Aspiring Leaders

Ms. Austin did not have any formal leadership training.  Rather she believes she learned from the “school of hard knocks.”  Her advice for aspiring leaders is to seek out advice and mentorship as well as to spend time thinking about the kind of leader you want to be.


“Think about what is most important to you? What is more important than money?  Who are the leaders that you most admire and why?  What is it about those leaders and the way they exercise power that is important?  Reflect on those questions to clarify your approach, your values and create alignment between what you are doing, how you are behaving and what your goals are.”


On Being a Mother in the C-Suite

Ms. Austin has no children.  She admires those that do because “it is enormously challenging for both women and men.”


Ms. Austin’s perspective, supported by statistics, is that having children presents a greater challenge for women.  She attributes this in large part to societal and cultural norms around women’s role at home and at work. “Women continue to bear the lion’s share of responsibility for childcare, elder care, domestic work.  There has been some shift in these roles, particularly among younger men, but it has actually been quite a minor shift.”


The women Ms. Austin knows with significant leadership roles have either negotiated different arrangements with their spouses, (many have spouses who stay home and manage the domestic side) or are affluent enough to be able to afford 2 or 3 nannies “that makes it possible to do this work.”


The “fix” requires more than women “Leaning In,” or having greater workplace flexibility.  A shift in social policy is required: public policy reforms that would create incentives for men to play a role in caregiving, for example extending parental leave from 12 – 18 months with a portion reserved exclusively for men.  “If men had to take those extra months, ‘use it lose it,’ that would serve to normalize the role of men being responsible for childcare.  It would remove some of the gender bias in hiring.  Currently when men and women in the same age bracket apply for a position, the man will get the job, even if the woman is the better candidate.”


What is required is the political will to restructure our family policy framework.  “We have no systems of high quality early learning and care for children.  Childcare is extremely expensive, and even if parents are prepared to pay for it there are not enough spaces.  Inevitably it is the woman who tends to pare back or interrupt her career.  That is reinforced by social norms, “which are not in fact serving either women or men.


“Men suffer the same challenges in reverse.  Women feel or are criticized for a choice to work when they have young children.  Men are criticized for the reverse, accused of not being serious about their jobs if they take time off to stay home with their children.”


Ms. Austin cites research that shows then when men get involved with childcare at a young age they are much more likely to continue to play that role through the child’s life.


“There are significant benefits to women’s full participation in the workforce.  GDP would increase. (a fact former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton shared with her audience in Vancouver on March 5th).  We have the best educated group of women in our history and yet they are underemployed.”


On Women and Bullying

Ms. Austin has experienced bullying from men, not woman.  I was pleased to learn that what I call the ‘myth of sisterhood’ is in fact her reality.  “In Metro Vancouver there is a group of senior female leaders  who are actively involved in supporting each other and mentoring young women.”


As I often share with my audiences, women are targeted in 75% – 80% of complaints of bullying and harassment.  One reason for this is that women are not socialized to step into their power and speak up.  While Ms. Austin acknowledges that it can be difficult, she agrees that the most effective way to avoid being bullied is to choose not to be a target.


“Bullies bully those who won’t push back.  Bullies try and press your buttons until they recognize that you can’t be bullied.  Seek some practical help in terms of how to address it and set your boundaries.”


Ms. Austin acknowledges that this requires a basic level of self-confidence and that speaking up “can be incredibly difficult and very challenging.  When people need their jobs they can be fearful of pushing back.”


As explored in Road to Respect, bullying can be a cultural norm in some workplaces. “There are cultures that tolerate it and those that don’t.”  Ms. Austin shares my perspective on the importance of getting curious about the culture you are moving into, and being strategic in choosing employment in an organization whose values align with yours.


Lessons for Leaders

Bullying is a learned behaviour.  The research clearly shows that it can be unlearned.  “Workplaces can adopt proactive strategies to support people to develop positive modes of communication, teach them  to take the emotion out of an emotional situation and respond in a fact based way that also allows them to set their boundaries.”


Advice for Male leaders of Fortune 500 companies

Ms. Austin echoes what we have heard in previous interviews as well as what the research shows: diversity at the Board and senior levels boosts the bottom line.  Numerous objective measurements, including financial, establish that organizations with greater diversity outperform those with less diversity. “Having diversity at the table is about creating the context to generate a richer set of ideas to inform decision making.  Gender diversity is absolutely key to that.”


Advice for Young Women Aspiring to the C-Suite

Echoing Sheryl Sandberg’s message in Lean In, Ms. Austin advice young women to:


“Step up.

Don’t wait for someone to come and ask you.

When you see opportunities, put up your hand and offer to do things.

Others will come to appreciate that you have the capability to achieve.

They will see you as someone that can be relied on to get good results,

produce a good product and deliver on time.


Reach out.

Look at building positive alliances in your workplace and in your community.

The more you can understand other’s objectives and

align with other’s objectives the more powerful you will be in any given situation.”


Pinsky’s writing style makes this book an easy read for managers, decision-makers, human resource professionals and business owners and anyone else interested in building a respectful workplace. She provides tangible advice interwoven with the stories of real organizations who demonstrate on a daily basis the value of promoting a respectful workplace. Pinsky ensures that readers can glean from the book information they need to take action. A respectful  workplace culture is a road “paved” over time with trust and support; and Pinsky’s book provides the tools you need to arrive at your destination.

Catherine M. Mattice
President, Civility Partners, LLC & SME on Workplace Bullying