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A Metro investigation of Toronto-based boards shows there’s lots of work to be done when it comes to giving women an equal share of power on private and public sector boards.

#WomenOnBoards: Toronto students help big businesses shatter the glass ceiling

This UofT class spent months helping companies like Shopify and RBC find solutions to gender-based challenges — and learned a little bit about inequality along the way.

Phoebe Luk, a student in the University of Toronto’s Designing for Equality course, was part of a group that developed strategies for how big companies can get more women on boards.


Phoebe Luk, a student in the University of Toronto’s Designing for Equality course, was part of a group that developed strategies for how big companies can get more women on boards.

The brains behind some of the city’s biggest businesses are getting lessons in how to tackle gender issues from an unlikely set of teachers.

Over the last semester, University of Toronto students in the school’s new Designing for Equality course came up with recommendations for how businesses, including Shopify, RBC, Tellent and What She Said Radio, can help women balance careers and personal lives, land more board seats traditionally held by men and motivate more females to be investors.

The course aims to motivate students to address equality-based problems — the wage gap, sexism in the office and a lack of mentorship and senior leadership roles for women — long before they land top jobs where they’ll have power to trigger change.

“We do a disservice by telling students if you know a strategy template, you are ready to lead. I think this will help students navigate some of those challenges,” said instructor Vanessa Iarocci, who invited businesses to issue gender-based challenges for which her students could help find solutions.

Among the participants was Jennifer Hargreaves, founder of Tellent, a community for female professionals balancing flexible work. She asked students to look into how companies can tap into women who are experienced enough to be in senior management or vice-presidential roles, but require flexibility and, as a result, often end up in jobs where they are underutilized and underpaid.

“Tellent is targeting women in a very specific spot in their life, but I really wanted to get perspective from the millennial generation and university students, who are into the trends and have a completely different experience,” said Hargreaves.

The students recommended she create a job board, look at how millenials and boomers face similar challenges as women and do more consulting work to help businesses adopt policies that offer more flexibility — advice she says she’ll seriously consider.

Millennials also came up in a challenge from RBC delving into how to encourage women to become more successful investors.

Student Caroline Jiang said her team’s recommendations involved the creation of a matching process that sees millennial women matched with financial advisors who share similar values, "so that the relationship between clients and advisors can be built up.”

Meanwhile, her classmate Phoebe Luk was in a group that looked at the lack of women on boards and how to encourage more women to invest in themselves early on so they can land top jobs.

Among other things, the group found that women don’t know how or where to start, many underestimate the value of networking and preparing for a board career can be seen as "yet another obligation on top of their existing board and personal obligations," Luk said.

Engaging students like Jiang and Luk in discussing these issues early in their career is crucial, said Hargreaves. She remembers being their age and thinking the glass ceiling was something from her parent’s generation.

“I didn’t think it was still around until I ran smack into it,” she said. “But, if you know the endgame and some of the issues, you can better deal with it and prepare yourself.”

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