‘Diversity is the goal’: Edmonton initiative hopes to increase women in leadership

A partnership between YWCA Edmonton and DirectHer Network hopes to empower Alberta women to rise up in the business and non-profit world and serve on company boards.

The two organizations have launched a 12-month pilot project that will connect women and gender minorities with education that will better prepare them for representation roles on boards and high-level tables.

“We really care about bringing more gender equality to our community,” said Katherine O’Neill, the CEO of YWCA Edmonton.

“We know that we do not have enough women serving on boards in all shapes and sizes in our province.”

The groups said in Canada, women hold just 21.5 per cent of TSX-listed company board seats.

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Chantel Cabaj, who founded DirectHer Network, said that her non-profit organization has always been about carving space for more diverse leadership.

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“If you are on a board, you are trying to scope out the most opportunity and be the most mindful about risk for the organization,” Cabaj said. “And if you have all the same person around the table, that’s just not possible.

“So we focus from the lens of gender, but really, diversity is the goal.”

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The two organizations will plan local events for women over the next year, the first of which is a one-day virtual workshop on Nov. 6.

In-person events will also be planned in the future at YWCA Edmonton’s Camp Yowochas.

If successful, the YWCA hopes to bring the educational template across Canada to its other 32 chapters.

“(DirectHer) had all the education ready to go, and we have all the networks and connections to help connect (women to the program),” O’Neill said.

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“We really hope that this education that DirectHer has set up will help demystify what serving on a board means,” she said. “Get people more confident, not only serving on a board, but really bringing that diverse perspective to a board and helping improve not only what the board outcomes are but building a stronger community.”

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Since January 2019, DirectHer has held training and networking events for over 2,000 women in the Edmonton area. Cabaj said through that time, creating an inclusive space has been key.

“If the goal is diversity on these boards, you have to put a bit of effort in,” Cabaj said. “You have to build community first and foremost. Community that says, ‘It’s OK to be here, it’s OK if you are scared, if you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re still valuable and you should still be here.’”

“It’s really a combination of community and relatable accessible education.”

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