Gender bias has been pervasive in the workforce for decades, hindering women’s ability to progress to leadership positions. The barriers to female leadership are multifaceted and complex, and it takes a concentrated effort from individuals, organizations, and society to address them. While the world has made significant strides in gender equality, women remain underrepresented in top leadership positions. In this Leading with Purpose discussion, Lori, Chief Data and Analytics Officer at BMO, and Quyen, Vice President at Swoon Consulting, discuss the importance of managing bias and making room for women to thrive. We examine the importance of recognizing biases, creating a support system for women, and providing strategies for individuals and organizations to create a more inclusive environment. By supporting other women and actively working to address gender bias, we can, collectively, impact real change and create a space where more women succeed.
Our Guest Speakers
Lori: I am Chief Data and Analytics Officer for BMO, the North American retail and business bank. I have been leading data and analytics teams for nearly 25 years now across the world and am a huge advocate for women’s empowerment. I also run a women’s circle called ElleExcel.
ElleExcel Women’s Circle is designed to empower women to excel in all aspects of their lives, offering inspiration, learning and connection with other like-minded women – across four fundamental drivers: ME (self-help and awareness), WE (community and connection), Wellness and Leadership. Grown solely through referrals with over 1,000+ women within the community.
Quyen: I am the head of Swoon Consulting, and much like Lori, women in leadership and creating a space for women to thrive and advance within the workplace is a big passion of mine. It is something that I have done a lot of work and research on and work to implement within Swoon as well.
Megan: I am the Director of Marketing & Sales Operations at Swoon. I would not be where I am today without strong women in my life, personally and professionally. It is so important to pass that forward—advocating for young women leaders by helping amplify voices and providing support in career development.
Megan: How have you seen bias in your career? Bias is something that is prevalent across industries—consciously or unconsciously. Can you give some examples, whether macro or micro, where you have experienced bias?
Lori: I have seen it in many ways throughout my teens to the present day. At times it was in words, gestures, or straight-up objectification of women. Some examples of this would be:
- Assuming that I would serve lunch or coffee at a meeting filled with men because I was the only woman there.
- Assuming I worked in fashion when I told the person I worked in technology.
- Assuming I could or could not do certain things because of my gender.
- Being asked not to dress a certain way because it was distracting.
Women in STEM were 27% of the STEM workforce, but that number is softening over time because I believe and have witnessed that the conditions for women to thrive in this field differ from that of men. STEM is very male-dominated and built for men to succeed. So, you put yourself in this situation where you are one of the only women on the team, and you either start doing the poor Hillary Clinton pantsuit situation where you try to adapt and look like you fit in, or you try to amplify and be more male than what your natural tendency is. You shrink yourself down to fit into those conditions, and you are just pushing uphill and facing too much adversity on your own. Then, the skills that you have languish because they need to come out to play. I have seen that throughout my career, and some are relatively subtle. Others are being spoken over or having the things I just said repeated by someone else in a slightly different way and then taking credit for it. It took me a while to see what was at play and that it was as bad as it was. The net effect is that it shrinks your confidence levels down, and for me, it made me show up as something different than I was. I have also bared witness to the fact that it was happening to other women in the room. This is why I am such a huge advocate for other women because one way through all this is to support one another in those situations.
Quyen: For most of us, we may have been the only woman in the room, especially when we are in some leadership capacity. So, sometimes your voice is not as loud, not as low, and we project differently. Therefore, our opinions are taken differently and maybe in a way that is not as respected, not as confident, or if we are overly confident, we are viewed the other way. So, there is a fine line that you feel you have to walk all the time. Sometimes we feel like we have to change ourselves to fit these roles in order to be taken seriously.
Another personal aspect is having leadership outings where it has been between a spa day or a golf outing. If I were to choose a spa day, which I have done often, I have been asked “why would I do that if I want to fit in or continue to move up?” I should choose golf because that is my opportunity to play with the “big boys.” That, for me, was incredibly damaging because, in a way, it hurt my confidence. I fell into this trap early in my career when I learned to play golf because I felt I needed to. That is just something you should never have to do – bend yourself to these personal activities because they have nothing to do with your quality of work or what you can produce. Those are some ways that I have experienced bias in my career, and I do not think that is too uncommon when you start talking to other women in the room, either.
Quyen: Lori, you put on a lot of ElleExcel events where you dive into some great topics and have heart-to-hearts with various women. When did you decide to create a space for women to thrive? What was the catalyst for that?
Lori: I have always felt that we are limitless. I grew up in an environment that was very female-dominated. A powerful mom and a set of strong aunts who all set the table for what would occur and what would not. This one time, my mom went on a trip and was helping my aunt garden, and we hadn’t heard from her for a few days. When we got a hold of her, we asked where she had been, and it turned out she was building a retaining wall. My mom was 60 at the time, and we were confused about how she learned to build the wall, which she said: “on YouTube.” They had my uncle running around and picking up the stones because they decided they would build this wall. I grew up in an environment where there were no limits.
The creation of a women’s circle came from a catalyst from my niece. So, I have two nieces and a nephew—all brilliant, lovely, wonderful people. I will not tell this story to the fullest because it is not mine to share, but my niece suffered a difficult relationship. She accepted terrible things that were bad for her and did not feel the courage to reveal them to anyone, including me, or extract herself from the situation. This was someone who I was talking to every week and had known since she was hours old. When I found out, I thought that if she did not feel that she had the tools to deal with this situation or the comfort to rely on the community of women who surrounded her, how often does this occur? How do I help? So, it led me down a path of how do you create the infrastructure for women to thrive? How do you make that connection between self-awareness and self-belief? I constructed this out of that situation because I figured if my niece was going through that alone, there were many others like her. So, connecting women with other women who may have gone through something similar or who know how to help is a potential solution and is a way to help more women get out of tough situations that they may feel they are stuck in.
Like attracts like, and women who are architected and sincerely want to help other women will find each other. If you create a community of people and you create a platform for them to connect, it amplifies it. Sometimes you come up against a less interested woman who is sorting herself out and might view you as a competition rather than an enabler because there are only a few seats at the boardroom table. They see it as you are competing for a seat rather than the fact that we need a bigger table to fit us all because we all bring diverse and unique experiences.
I like having this sense of community surround me because if I have a moment where I am not as strong or cannot rise, I have that support system behind me that will help me find that tether and lifeline. This is so important to have, and I am always so thankful that it exists because I do not know where I would be without it.
Megan: How can leaders spot unconscious biases within an organization?
Lori: To observe and ask. Observe meaning to watch the cues in the room. Where people engage and when they do not. When they shut down, who is speaking over whom, the body language, and see where their words stand on their own or when others are bookending them. The “ask” part is to validate. Check-in and look for the diverse populations at the table. Make sure their voices are being heard. Try going around the table and asking everyone for their point-of-view on the subject matter and ensure that they feel well represented in the topic of discussion. Doing that will teach others that there is space for individuality. There is space for golfers and spa-goers, and there is space for them to crossover. My advice for leaders on how to spot unconscious biases is to observe and ask. Simple, but very effective.
Quyen: First, I think it is essential to have that self-awareness to spot and understand your biases. What are your personal identity biases that you might not be aware of? Ask yourself some of those questions to figure out what your unconscious biases are, which you can take a step further and see what some of your first impression biases are. Those are both important for you to understand personally because, without that knowledge, you cannot step into a room and be open.
The second thing is to cultivate some connection with people. You talk about the relationship between golfers and spa-goers, and that is precisely what it is. You have to be able to connect with someone to make them feel welcome and give them the openness and the space to be able to have a voice. The third thing I would mention would be to have courage and the agency for growth because that is incredibly important when it comes to continuing to learn from other people’s perspectives. Just because we are women does not mean we travel the same path or journey in life. We have all had different journeys to get where we are today, but having that openness to learn from others and the ability to have the courage to grow from it, is essential when it comes to being able to spot some of those biases that we might have in ourselves and in others.
Lori: When it comes to self-awareness, we spend a lot of time thinking about what is out there. Things are invading our space, but the truth is, so much of the data comes from within women, specifically the girl and how they were cultivated and raised, and the conditions for success. In so many ways, before we show up to fight bias, we are first fighting ourselves. We may put our pants on every morning and try at least two to three sets of outfits while questioning if we look good, if our hair is okay, if we are feeling prepared. Internally, it’s getting the self-confidence to feel good and to show up feeling worthy, confident and prepared. That’s all in you. Then, there is a moment where you are affronted by potential bias or questions, and it is the ruminations of how that causes you to regard yourself. I think about women showing up and being their best, it starts with us. It is having that support and an understanding of “how do I get to a place where I feel good about myself?” Even when you do not have that, you have the self-awareness to know that you have a support system behind you and that you know who you ultimately are.
I use this device a lot, and I will say, “I am really struggling. I am sorry. Bear with me.” I preempt the interruption and someone criticizing or reframing what I am going to say because there are times when I just cannot get my words together. This creates the space to allow me to finish and feel good about the fact that I could do it and make it clear. People are generally kind, and they give you the rope. That level of centeredness and self-centeredness, in a good way, is the anchor and the rudder that allows you to show up and deal with all the other crap that will head our way. It is not only about bias. It is having those two things in sync. You show up, are strong, are well-rooted, and can handle a lot that comes your way. Using a soil analogy, the sun is coming at you some days, but other days you will get hammered by rain. However, you are rooted, and that is a liberating thing. It takes years, reflection, and assistance to get there.
Quyen: You brought up such a great point about self-confidence and self-awareness—of how you can have days when you are not feeling as confident as other days. Yale did a study where they had two people, and they rated them just on looks, beauty, symmetry, and all of that. They had a woman who was supposedly rated an 8.1 and another who was supposedly a 2 or something like that, but they flipped and told the reviews of the 8.1 woman to the 2-point woman and vice versa. The woman who was supposedly higher on the scale was slumping, she became softer, and her persona changed. The woman who was lower on the scale became more confident and vocal. It is interesting how that can happen. When I read that study, I thought, one, how can you categorize beauty, and two, who you surround yourself with and how you believe in yourself impacts you as well. So, Lori, what you said about surrounding yourself with the women and people who can affect, support, and lift as they rise is essential. Women who say, I have made it, help you get that seat at the table and push you to become the best version of yourself versus the people who say, well, there is one seat at the table, which is mine.
Lori: I love the idea of lifting as you rise. I am a huge fan of all women, whether they are the ones who are overtly supporting you or not. When someone shows up, I think about what has she gone through, what fires has she walked through, and what support did she have before arriving there? Then, I like to think about where she is trying to go. If I strip away all the noise and how she is showing up at that moment and try to figure out and tune into the human, all the crap she may have gone through to get to that point was because she just needed to survive, right? So there were all these adaptive strategies, and then she showed up. She is in that moment with that baggage and is trying to get to a place. So, ultimately, it is trying to move a business or lead a team and trying to go somewhere, but those two things are coming together. It is like “get out of my way so I can do that, or I am trying to get there, and you are in my way, or I am not being understood.” Even the more aggressive among us, and I can be in that camp sometimes too, you will find something in there that is human and that you can tune into that is compassionate. In those moments when another woman is steamrolling me, I will try to say something nice and something human, or I can see you are trying to go there, or you are the expert at that, not I, or can you help me better understand and I will just let her go and loop back afterward.
One of my girlfriends the other day was in a meeting and had low blood sugar. She had to present at not her best. So, I got her a bag of carrots and slid it under the table. Even something as subtle as that goes a long way. Another example was about two weeks ago, I was at a coffee shop, and this girl had a long line of people she was serving coffee to, and when I finally got to her, I told her I thought her nails looked great (which they did, I was not making that up). That made her stop, and it was a very human moment where she had to process what had happened because she was in this mindset of just getting through the line of people. Ultimately, that also changes her interaction with the other six people in line behind me. It is just being human and authentic. Being compassionate changes the dynamic.
Quyen: I know you come from a line of very empowered women, but that human element you spoke about and that level of empathy and compassion is very important in our professional and personal lives. What do you think got you thinking about how you operate not just at work but in daily life?
Lori: I grew up in a household with a lot of drama and many people trying to figure their way through their lives. People who were suffering – parents, aunts, uncles, everybody – it was a tricky household. When you are in those situations, you learn your space. There was so much need in my case, and I was the youngest, that everyone was very needful when I arrived. So, I became valuable by not having a lot of needs. Refrain from burdening the systems with more of my needs. There are pros and cons to that, which I will speak about, but I would tune into those situations, such as, oh, my mom needs this, or she is having a rough go, or my dad needs this. So, I would enable and give. Any energy that I had or any needs that I had, I gave away.
On the one hand, it helps you become empathic and read a situation to try to be useful and not get in the way. On the other hand, it can also rob you of your own needs. I experienced that, too, and in my forties, I burnt out. I just was not even aware that I had a need. People would say, well, what do you need and I would always say that I did not know, but this needs to get done. I would put the task before myself. If I had to do it over, I would still do it the same way and take the empathic tuning, not because it is the best but because it is very human. So then, you have to learn self-care. This stems from my household, how I grew up, and the circumstances in which I grew up, which is the case for many people.
Quyen: I think there is a fear of taking time off—whether taking maternity leave or needing a leave of absence. This fear that it might alter our career or have a negative impact on how we are viewed among teams or senior leaders. Lori, you mentioned that you got to a point where you physically could not continue and had to take some time. Can you talk us through that and how you were able to reenter the workforce?
Lori: It took me close to 10 years to be able to tell anyone about that, so that should tell you everything. I am a very private person, but there is power in vulnerability. There is empowerment for others in your story. Still, I was working in a role and doing my executive role, and another position was imposed upon me because of a vacancy. So, I was quite literally working day and night. 20-hour days in a lot of cases.
One of my defining moments was taking my mom to a medical appointment that she had, and since I was taking a conference call in my car, I missed her appointment. I was there and even drove her there, but I missed her appointment because I was too busy on that call, and the call ran late. I was trying to do it all and be it all, and I stopped being able to sleep because my mind was literally vibrating. I ended up having seizures, really horrendous seizures. On top of it all, my back started to seize up. I was not only mentally not all there, I was physically unable to do things. That landed me in the doctor’s office, where I walked in, stumbled, and could not even get onto the examining table. I was propped against the wall because my sciatic nerve was firing, and I had just had a seizure. I even went as far as to say that I needed him to give me something to get back for a boardroom meeting tomorrow. He told me I was taking a break because I could not even get on the examining table. He was very nice but needed to show me what I was doing to myself. He gave me a prescription I could not take because it was just too hard on my body, but he told me that I was not fit to work as of this day. I remember thinking, how am I going to explain this? How am I going to tell anyone that I cannot work? My body and mind have failed me. I cannot walk, think, or sleep. How am I going to explain this? Which is ridiculous. At the moment, I would not be just taking care of myself and figuring out how to get well, but I was plowed under with these thoughts of how I would show up and be able to tell anyone. I could not speak, another issue I had, and I started losing my voice because my vocal cords were constricted.
On all fronts, I was being locked down, and I had to sit with that cocktail of ailments for a long while and relearn how to walk, sleep, and care for myself. It was hilarious on one end if I looked at it from the outside, and on the other end, I knew I needed that whack in the head because I would have kept going and would have still been in that position. It was the greatest gift, and to this day, I still think about that moment when I was propped in his office, and I could not get on the examining table as a metaphor because your body is telling you things your mind is not getting and soul is just not ready for. It was a big lesson: a good one, but a really big one.
Quyen: Maybe not to that degree, but we all feel some part of that. It is the fear of how I will explain something. I might not be up for the challenge, the worry, and the concern. So, in the end, how did you do it?
Lori: I walked every day for sometimes hours at a time. I swam. I did not take any medication they gave me because it is not something I am comfortable with in my body. I walked my way back. I took mindfulness classes. I ate incredibly well. I am a big health nut, but I was not as much then. So, I started to nourish my body, which allowed me to sleep. I was like building blocks. I outsourced my decisions to my partner at the time. I remember standing in front of a bunch of cans in an aisle at a grocery store, and I had to pick something up. When we arrived, I told him I could not remember why we were there or what we needed to get. He said chickpeas, and I told him there were too many to choose from and that I needed him to choose. I just needed to rely on someone else to make decisions. Sometimes it was as simple as a chickpea, but other times as big as a mortgage. All I did for many years was get up and make decisions every day, all day, every meeting, every second, and I thought, I am just tapped out. I got through it by leaning on others, which I was not accustomed to doing, but I learned a lot.
Quyen: Going from your childhood of ignoring your needs to keep the peace to relying on someone else for something so simple must have been rather difficult. However, you overcame that and told yourself it is okay to need that support at certain times. As strong women, we think it is not okay because we are very self-sufficient, and I can relate. I grew up very self-sufficient and felt that I did not need anything or anyone to go ahead and do something. Sometimes in your life, you need others; it is okay to have people around you for that. It might take a huge event to do so, and even though I see the parallels, that self-sufficient aspect of you has gotten you to many of your successes and not so much where you are. Also, the other side is that you do need people and others and things, and sometimes you have to realize that to go further and get past something really critical. We need to recognize that and have the vulnerability to admit that.
Lori: There is an element of that which I call the power pack where it is the deliberate depiction of the suite of support that you need. You create these when you are well, not when you are in a situation where you cannot figure out what kind of chickpeas to buy, and you are burning out in the doctor’s office. You sit back and think about what is in my power pack from a wellness perspective. Who are my practitioners? Is it this psychologist? Is it a chiropractor? Is it getting a massage? From a people perspective, there are different people in your life. There is your family, but then there is your support pack from a work perspective. Who are the people? Who can I lean on for what subjects, and who are my experts? What about the things from a perspective and the centeredness, whether journaling, food, morning tea, etc., the essential routines? Who is in that power pack of support that is essential for you? Then when you face that situation and need XYZ, you can almost look it up. We are not drawing on our reserves all the time. We are limitless. It is maintaining that state and being in that state more frequently versus less frequently that allow us to thrive.
Megan: Do either of you have any final pieces of advice or any thoughts you would like to close us out with?
Lori: The single greatest anecdote to women facing bias is community. You need to build your community. It’s the ability to tap into other women and connect with other women. What you are facing has been faced before, and there’s a level of reassurance around the power of community. It transforms you and lifts you up. That support system and being able to tap into and connect with other women is so critical. The answers are out there for what you might be struggling with, and there are other women out there who want to help. Finding your community and that group of women who are going to hold you up, help you, and teach you, is going to be the thing that will sustain you from the time you are a child to the time you are on the eve of your life. They are the people who will help you stay sane even in your most chaotic times. I have this in ElleExcel, but it is so important to find that level of community.
Quyen: I love the community you built, Lori, and was thoroughly impressed by it. If you are looking for a community, I highly recommend joining ElleExcel and some women’s circle events.
If I were to pick one thing to conclude this discussion with, it would be to choose growth and have the courage to choose growth for yourself. It comes with so many things in the long run. Also, do not be afraid. In Lori’s scenario, she talked about her body failing, but she learned a valuable lesson and is very aware of what she needs and how to nourish her body. She also knows how to create all the areas she needs to be her best and limitless. Take that mindset and see what you need to grow, be confident, and lean into that support system. Continually choose growth and have the courage to do so every single day.
Meet Our Panelists:
Chief Data and Analytics Officer at BMO Financial Group and Founder of ElleExcel
Vice President of Swoon Consulting
Director of Marketing and Sales Operations at Swoon