Melting the glass ceiling

The Judy Project tries to improve Canada's corporate performance.

The group of mostly middle-aged women sipping lattes in the Kingbridge Conference Centre's basement earlier this month doesn't exactly fit the traditional high-powered executive or CEO image. Get them chatting, however, and the truth quickly becomes clear.

Each of the 27 women are participating in a weeklong seminar, The Judy Project: An Enlightened Leadership Forum for Executive Women. All brandish impressive credentials: a very senior role at a large Canadian company, such as Bell Canada, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment or KPMG, and an endorsement from their CEO that, in five to eight years' time, they could be appointed head honcho.

The Judy Project, launched in partnership with the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, was established in memory of Judy Elder, a well-known Toronto-based business leader who died in 2002. Its ultimate goal: to improve Canadian corporate performance. According to a report by the Conference Board of Canada titled Creating High-performance Organizations: Leveraging Women's Leadership, organizations with diverse executive teams (variation in gender, age and ethnicity) achieve superior corporate performance.

Unfortunately, a study by research firm Catalyst shows only 12% of corporate director positions are held by women. To address the imbalance, the Judy Project was created four years ago. “I won't stop until 50% of Canada's CEOs are women,” says Colleen Moorehead, project co-founder and past president of online brokerage E*Trade Canada.

The instructors are as first-rate as the attendees. Best-selling New York author Malcolm Gladwell gave the keynote address. Jill Ker Conway, a Boston-based septuagenarian who sits on the boards of Merrill Lynch, Colgate-Palmolive, and Nike (she was Nike's first female director), told tales of a lifetime spent shattering the glass ceiling. Said participant Donna Drover, general manager at Canada Post: “The content around leadership is so rich. Many of my colleagues could benefit from it.”

What kind of leadership insights were on offer? Katherine Rethy, a senior vice-president at Falconbridge, noted research shows women are likely to downplay certainty, while men tend to minimize doubts. Judy Project training teaches how to build networks, take credit for accomplishments, establish a career plan and reflect on leadership goals and styles.

The women-only aspect naturally influences the tone. “I've been to leadership conferences where it is mixed sexes, and it is not the same,” said Darlene Goren, vice-president of business solutions at Hudson's Bay Co. “This is a supportive environment.” Elizabeth Tropea, of Bell, says that under other circumstances, “we wouldn't have had this degree of candour.”

At the end, participants were divided into groups of six to eight. Dubbed personal advisory boards, these teams will meet once a month, for four hours, forever. “They are to support your ambition, and view you holistically,” says Moorehead. She hopes to expand the initiative in future years, keeping forums intimate but running them biannually. There are whispers of a Junior Judy Project, too. The challenge? Finding enough qualified women to attend.