Back in the 1970s and 1980s I watched my mother make her way through the ranks of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MoE); she started as a temporary clerk and moved through to management for the last 15 years of her career with the MoE. I remember the moment when I first grasped that her road had been tough; she was asked to be part of a glossy Ontario government document showcasing the “great things that women can achieve.” She was profiled in the magazine as an example of how women can become leaders. Featured along with her in the brochure were a woman who worked in her coveralls as a water treatment specialist, a woman who was a field scientist, a female government lawyer, and a woman who was a finance statistician. What struck me as odd at the time was that I had never heard my mother say it was hard to become the leader she was. I had never considered the magnitude of what she was doing as a manager in her power suits and high-heeled boots. I took it for granted that leadership was equally accessible to women and men. The magazine told me otherwise.
Thirty-something years later I find myself often asking the same question—is leadership equally accessible to men and women? When I consider the question, I now do so through an equity lens, a feminist lens, and through my own experiences as a woman. I do so while considering what is meant by the terms “woman” and “leadership.” I do so with context and cultural knowledge stemming from the words of women such as Anne-Marie Slaughter and Roxanne Gay; women whose books on feminism, equity, and power are bedside reading for me and for many of the women with whom I work. But I am not sure I have an answer to the question. So, I have undertaken some story-seeking with a variety of women from the Federation to see if there can be an answer, or maybe several answers. What follows is a brief attempt to synthesize their ideas and mine, and to maybe scratch the surface of the question—how has our own organization supported leadership for women and what are our areas of growth? We are lucky enough to belong to a union that embraces equity, creates mentorship programs for women, and seeks to improve its practice. We have strategies in place to encourage leadership, but we are not perfect. This article will also hopefully open up further discussions about other voices that are missing in our various forms of leadership, about how we define leadership, and what we want our leadership to look like. Let it be a discussion point and let it be a story-telling moment.
As I expected, the stories of the women interviewed varied, and while their experiences were all different, there was a common message that emerged in the stories of leaders that I collected; we have more to do and we cannot do it alone. So, I will start the story at the end by stealing one of Roxanne Gay’s points from her essay “How to Be Friends with Another Woman,” which appears in her collection Bad Feminist (2014): “5B: If you and your friend(s) are in the same field and you can collaborate or help each other, do this without shame. It’s not your fault your friends are awesome” (p48). This was the message I heard loud and clear—for all of the respondents, mentorship, or “femtorship” as a few called it, really matters. For them, leadership came because people at various levels of this organization, often at the Provincial Office level, reached out to them and told them they had something to offer, told them they had potential. I lend my voice to this experience, completely. My best growth and my best opportunities have come when others in this organization have helped me see my strengths, guided me through overcoming my own weaknesses, and showed me how to navigate possible barriers to my own next steps.
When answering my question about what they have gained by being a leader in OSSTF/FEESO, overwhelmingly the answer was a sense of self confidence coupled with a richer appreciation for the educational team. The barriers that some women felt they had to overcome were often “well worth the pain” as the chance to be creative, to work with like-minded folks, and to gain a variety of experiences made all the difference. For some, the sense of self-identity, comradery and family were also key benefits. The safety we feel when we are able to find our people and to share in our own challenges was palpable in the answers I received. For some of the participants, the power of the Federation goes deeper, as it has given them their own level of pride coupled with an empowerment that has moved into their private lives. For some of us, this means the Federation has been a lifeline helping us make it through life’s greatest challenges.
Conversely, it has not all been the story of success and a celebration of our excellence as women. For many there was also a corollary between the work we do as leaders and the personal and professional sacrifices we have had to make. From sacrificing personal time with family, and suffering health challenges, and even the end of relationships, many have identified the challenges we face as daunting. Being a leader, taking the path to leadership, can often mean hours and hours of volunteer time, time away from children and partners, travelling with kids to meetings on weekends, all accompanied by a level of guilt for not being there for everyone. And while this is not unique to women in the Federation, it is a gendered reality, as more often than not the realities of child rearing fall largely to us. The choice we face between family and the Federation is not unique to our organization; it is a societal divide that will not be solved overnight. However, without naming it and striving to redefine what we see leadership to be, it will remain.
Additionally, many of us pay a professional price as we pursue leadership roles. Balancing our non-Federation professional work with our desire to be recognized in the organization can come at the cost of our own work advances. In all job classes, when we give more to the volunteer activities required of Federation leaders, there follows a loss of time and energy to become a leader in our given profession. Sometimes, this leads to a self-imposed road block—do I give my time to becoming a leader in my professional role or do I give my time to become a leader in OSSTF/FEESO? One answer suggested by a couple of participants is to provide greater opportunities for our leaders-in-waiting to try out higher levels of local and provincial leadership, outside the realm of volunteerism…a job share, a job trial. This could remove the barrier we feel when we have to choose between advancement in our job or advancement in our union. Until we move to a release position, firmly situating ourselves in Federation leadership, we risk limiting our own growth. It is yet another choice we face—professional growth or the road to leadership.
Perhaps the hardest part of the story telling for me is the part where I explore the barriers some of us have faced to leadership. In a couple of cases, the women were able to say they faced few barriers to their own growth as leaders, but in those cases there was a common element—support from family, friends, colleagues, and the organization. We cannot do it alone, that is for certain. But for the majority of respondents, their experiences included a variety of challenges that at times stymied their growth, impacted their road to leadership, and demoralized them personally and professionally. Stories of being blocked by male colleagues, stories about having ideas ignored at meetings (only to then have a male colleague posit the same idea and have it embraced fully), and stories of being denied information about opportunities with the Federation were common. The message was that if you want to be a leader, you have to play the game with the boys—some spoke of finding our social model of evening meals and networking suites to be limiting, especially for those with family, personal health, or other professional responsibilities. For these women, the limited access to the social side of the Federation means not getting the chance to meet the very mentors/femtors who could be instrumental in their growth as leaders. In some instances, there is a sense of invisibility as a member in the organization; a sense that as women, there isn’t a place that actively shines a spotlight on us. There was agreement among many of the women with whom I spoke that this is beyond just our organization. The nature of leadership in organized labour, as with so many of our structures, is dominated by old practices that do not always embrace women’s realities. The organizational structures are at the root of the problem; greater flexibility to meet personal and professional needs is required.
Beyond the structures of the organization, perhaps lies the cruelest of the challenges we face—our own sense of self-worth and readiness. For many of us, the voice in our head says that someone else is better suited to the role, someone else deserves it more, someone else has given more to the Federation. Fear is a powerful tool in our self-destruction; Anne-Marie Slaughter, in her 2015 book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, notes that “fear can be a major obstacle holding women back. Banishing those doubts, however, can promote a virtuous circle: you assume you can juggle work and family, you step forward, you succeed professionally, and then you’re in a better position to ask for what you need and to make changes that could benefit others” (p18). The “virtuous circle” needs to be embraced.
I recently attended a TEDx Women event at the University of Ottawa where one of the keynote presenters told her own story of overcoming not believing in herself enough and being inundated with self-doubt. I know this mantra too well and lived it long enough—that day I was able to speak with the presenter and told her how powerful I found her admission and how inspiring her proclamations “I can and I will” were for me. This moment of acceptance of what we have to offer to others cannot be forced, it cannot be mandated through a policy motion at the Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA). However, it can be a focus of our organization, to work to teach empowerment, to continue to support deep and meaningful mentorships, and to provide spaces for us to question and challenge our own biases. For all of the respondents, there was a sense of personal responsibility in the choices they made in pursuing their own leadership story.
But where does this all lead us? OSSTF/FEESO has structures in place—the Equity Mentorship Program, the Pathways documents created by our Status of Women Committee, the continued work of our Human Rights Committee—these, along with the daily support many of our leaders provide to other aspiring leaders must be applauded. Of course, the stories here are those of only a handful of voices, and they do not consider the ways in which job class, race, ability, and sexual orientation may intersect with our experiences, often further limiting access to opportunity. For some of the respondents, this is a lived reality; being part of what we deem an Equity Seeking group in our organization means there is increased work to be done when seeking leadership roles. The stories remind us is that there is no one road to leadership and that we have more roads to pave to help diversify the face of the Federation. Roxanne Gay reminds us that “the rules are always different for girls, no matter who they are and what they do” (p315). The women who took part in the research for this article reminded me that the rules out there are different, and that often the rules we set for ourselves are quite different. But while we are in a time much removed from the velvet and wide-lapel suits of my mother’s image as an Accounts Payable Manager in the Ministry of the Environment, we still have ways to grow and questions to ask about what leads women to leadership in OSSTF/FEESO.