Sometimes when you begin your career, you receive great advice that serves you well. Other times, you might hear well-meaning suggestions that you must un-learn later or, adapt those comments to your own style.
Kathy Cunningham, who today is Senior Vice-President, Finance at Canadian-based Sun Life, remembers starting her career at a time of great opportunity. “I was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted. In university my classes were a 50-50 gender split, so we went into the workforce assuming we could achieve anything we wanted.”
That doesn’t mean there weren’t obstacles, especially early in her career. “When I looked up, I didn’t see women in senior roles yet – that was just starting – but it felt like there were opportunities.”
Though Kathy does recall some advice she received from a trusted advisor that she views differently looking back on it today. “Years ago when I was promoted, a senior leader congratulated me but told me ‘You’ll have to be quiet for the first few years.’ I understood what he meant – that outspoken, new leaders may not be appreciated by colleagues – but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have given that same counsel to a male.”
As Kathy rose in her profession, she experienced moments that explained the rationale for her colleague’s advice. She told me, “Looking back, and learning to recognize unconscious bias, I think there were opportunities I didn’t get to participate in because of my gender. But I didn’t let it impact my trajectory, and now those events inform the ways that I help others succeed.”
Something that struck a chord for Kathy is research she’s read on the “double bind” phenomenon, where women’s actions are judged differently than men. She explained that, “It’s the notion that a woman who seems confident is labelled as ‘assertive.’ A woman who advocates for herself as opposed to her team is too ‘aggressive.’ And, a woman who makes decisions that are not inclusive is seen to be ‘bossy’ or the other ‘b-word’.”
Kathy’s response: “I could be frustrated and say ‘It’s not fair that I’m evaluated differently,’ or I can say, ‘That’s the paradigm I’m working in, so how do I maneuver in that and try to change it in the future?’”
Opting to duel the double bind, Kathy described how, “For me, the biggest thing has been reminding myself that, if I want my message heard, I must think about how I express it. That means choosing ways to communicate that ensure people are influenced by my words, rather than over-reacting to them.”
Kathy gave the example of framing an issue in terms of her team’s needs rather than her own. She added that, “I’m not trying to say that is the right answer – and there are lots of different strategies depending on the environment – but if I want my voice to be heard, I try to flip my message that way.”
Kathy also pointed out that things are changing for the better, and quite quickly, as we get more women at the table: “If you’ve got three women among a majority of men, that’s enough people to start amplifying each other’s voices, start to change the dynamic, and make your way of expressing yourself more acceptable.” For instance, Kathy points out that women can work together to ensure they get credit for their work. “Little things can happen in meetings where someone might take credit for someone else’s idea. You can be an ally to a female co-worker and remind everyone that she brought forward the idea.”
Kathy notes that she enjoys being a teammate for other women: “I think of my career as a ‘jungle gym’ rather than a ladder, as you need many different experiences to build your full toolkit. And I love the concept of a woman reaching into that ‘jungle gym’ to another woman, reaching in to pull her up too.”
In terms of shifting the paradigm for the future, Kathy helped usher in Sun Life’s EmpoweredXchanges, a grassroots group bringing together female and male employees to ensure women equally seize opportunities and realize their ambition. The group, which is expanding across Sun Life’s North American offices as part of its Bright Women inclusion network includes three pillar issues that female employees said held them back: the need to build networks, take more risks and be more confident. Some events have seen more than 2,000 participants, including classes and workshops to help women gain confidence, embrace risk-taking and grow their influence.
Kathy champions these efforts since she remembers her own journey to build her confidence and take more risks. “At one point in my career, I was offered a big career jump and – instead of confidently accepting this great role – my immediate reaction was to say that I’m not the best person for the job. I had someone coach me that I better go back right away and tell my boss that, yes, I could do it and I was excited to take it on. That’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but I want women to learn from my mistake.”
Reflecting on her career path, Kathy today tells young women to, “Recognize what is your ambition early in your career. I didn’t aspire to a specific goal, but now I see how important it is to decide where you want to go. As you work your way through the career jungle gym, you can add the skills to reach your ambition, and build your personal brand, aligned with your organization’s values.”
For me, this conversation with Kathy reinforced some important themes for women growing their careers. When Kathy realized the daunting gender bias existed, she didn’t let it squash her ambitions, nor did she accept the recommended safe path. Instead, she chose to understand, and learn how to work around the challenge, by mastering communication and finding allies.
Perhaps most inspiring is the fact that today Kathy is working to dissolve the double bind, by helping women build their networks and confidence on a North American scale, so someday we can all find ourselves in boardrooms without bias.
For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.
More about Kathy Cunningham: Kathy is Senior Vice-President, Finance at Sun Life, a Canadian-based, international financial services organization that provides insurance, wealth and asset management solutions to individual and corporate clients in North America, the United Kingdom and the Asia Pacific region. In this role, Kathy is responsible for Sun Life’s external financial reporting, global accounting policy and support to M&A, global Financial Planning and Analysis, along with the Enterprise Services Finance team. Kathy has also been the Chief Financial Officer for Sun Life’s Canadian business and joined Sun Life as Senior Vice-President and Chief Auditor in 2014 where she was responsible for the company’s global internal Audit team. Kathy was formerly a Partner at KPMG in Canada, where, over a 24-year span, she held leadership roles in the firm’s Financial Services and Communications & Media practices. In 2017, Kathy was recognized as one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by Women’s Executive Network. She is a Chartered Professional Accountant and holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Queen’s University.