Nuvyn Peters Reflects on Female Leadership Disparity, Departures and Need for Bold Conversation

Jason McRobbie

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In a world where the dividends of diversity are becoming more widely appreciated, how is that the gender imbalance at leadership levels in Canada not only remains, but appears to be worsening post-pandemic? We sit down with Nuvyn Peters, interim Executive Director with Axis Connects, digs into this attrition trend and the true dividends of diversity in today’s feature article about female leadership.

Key Takeaways:

  • While the pandemic impacted women disproportionately, a greater percentage of women than men, including at leadership levels continue to leave the workplace;
  • Leaders need to move beyond thinking they know what is best for employees and ground best practice in authentic questions and conversation;
  • Attraction, engagement and retention of female talent is best ensured by representation at executive levels—and not just HR.

Connecting, collaborating and championing women in their careers is what fuels Nuvyn Peters, interim Executive Director with Axis Connects in Calgary, on a daily basis.

“Through collaboration with other organizations, we are striving to get women into positions of authority within the leadership teams—as CEOs, CFOs, COOs,” said Nuvyn. “Often when you look at a leadership team it is HR or People and Culture that holds the sole female seat on the executive team, and while that is important, we need to expand our concepts of leadership.”

What keeps her up at night though is that despite the many changes and evolutions in the workplace, just four per cent of Canada’s largest publicly traded companies have a woman CEO.

Worse yet, the pandemic impacted women disproportionately, and according to a report by Lean In and McKinsey, some workplaces are actually suffering an attrition of female leadership—for every woman promoted up from director level, two director level women are choosing to leave their company.

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On an even broader level, that same report—based on data from 133 companies representing 12 million people and direct survey responses from over 40,000 employers—showed 29 per cent of women were thinking about reducing their hours, taking a less demanding job or leaving the workforce entirely, compared to 22 per cent of men.

For Nuvyn, these are more than concerning figures. In the framework of her larger philanthropic efforts, sparked by her work in the early 2000s with the Tahirih Justice Centre—a charitable NGO in Falls Church, Virginia aimed at protecting immigrant women fleeing gender-based violence and persecution—they are a challenge to be everyone, regardless of gender.

Unfortunately, as per Lean In founder Sheryl Sandberg’s observation in the report: “Women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate we’ve ever seen. They aren’t leaving the workforce entirely but are choosing to leave for companies with better career opportunities, flexibility, and a real commitment to DEI.”

For Nuvyn, those words not only ring true, but go to the heart of her work with Axis Connects—as well as her wisdoms for employers seeking to stem that tide of attrition and dig deeper into the true dividends of diversity.

“Axis Connects really believes in the hub and spoke model. We’re trying to connect various companies, organizations and industries together to build that pipeline for women throughout the course of their careers. There is a real lack of breadth and depth when you look at the numbers in that pipeline,” said Nuvyn. “Where Axis has a really unique value proposition is that it is not just about ‘promoting’ women. This is about supporting women in their ambitions to take on positions of leadership where they are in decision-making roles, where they are influencing the balance sheet, policy outcomes, strategic direction across industries.”

She noted that the added pressure of the pandemic definitely pushed many long-suffered issues to the surface and for many there are new expectations of the workplace.

“I think that particularly throughout Covid, people had a real chance to reassess their life priorities. People are definitely taking a closer look at happiness and what is fulfilling in their lives,” said Nuvyn. “The pandemic exasperated those concerns that were perhaps kept under the surface before—whether it’s the increased responsibilities of caregiving or being in that sandwich generation scenario caring for your parents, the rise of mental health challenges, that feeling of being overwhelmed.”

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Having witnessed just how fast workplace cultures and systems ‘can’ change—overnight in the case of the pandemic—has only likely spurred the disillusionment and departures with the return of static systems for many.

“The work culture and structure has frankly not changed a lot in the last 50 years. People are still commuting to their cubicles and offices, but work itself has changed with the rise of the gig economy and people working remotely for international companies. Unfortunately, employers are very slow to meet the needs of a changing demographic,” said Nuvyn.

One of the primary impediments for women in the workplace is the ongoing perpetuation of the work/life balance myth in Nuvyn’s opinion.

“One of the things that even organizations which focus on women, empowerment and gender diversification tend to focus on is the concept of work/life balance—as though these were separate and distinct entities, which is foolish to think,” said Nuvyn. “When you set up that kind of myopic view you are setting them up for failure—for feeling they are not successful in either their work or in their life—because they are never going to be balanced.”

“Instead, we should be talking about integration or empowerment. Life is far more of a 24/7 journey and one that needs to be recognized and embraced,” said Nuvyn. “My life as a mother does not end when I am at work, nor does my role as a business owner end when I am at home with my kids. It’s about making it work and embracing the journey and the challenge as a whole person.”

Nuvyn noted these conversations, which are not always easy, are even more important for employers looking to grow and retain female talent in leadership positions. For women, Nuvyn said, that drive for balance can become a drive for unattainable success in all things.

“The best that I can surmise is that the burden and the stress and the challenge that women feel to be a success at everything and what they put on themselves as well to the best—mother, soccer coach, volunteer, community leader—is too much and people are burned out,” said Nuvyn, who puts the onus both on organizations to evolve and upon women to speak up.

“I think that having open conversations is key—whether it is a roundtable, a lunch and learn or one on one. Companies need to stop making assumptions about what women need to be successful in their own career aspirations and journeys—and reach out and ASK people. Have that conversation,” said Nuvyn. “So often, policies and guidelines are developed in silos or based on a certain assumption of what is best without actually engaging employees in truly open, honest, candid conversation.”

Undeniably, progress has been made, but that core kernel of critical conversation is still often missing for those organization taking steps along the avenue of EDI.

“A lot of things are on the radar now, from flex work arrangements to paid leave for caregiving, supportive policies for home care and compensation—there are a lot of things companies can do to check a box,” said Nuvyn. “But are you really creating a sense of loyalty, empowerment and commitment on behalf of your employees to your organization? To a certain extent, but there is so much more that we can be doing.”

Moreover, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for what needs to and can be done.

“This is about actually treating people like people—who aspire to grow, to learn, to know what’s expected of them to be successful and to have those open, empowering conversations. A manager needs ask, ‘What do you need to be successful? How, as a manager, can I support you in your journey?’” said Nuvyn. “If a company truly cares and values authentic employee engagement, gender engagement and diversity, they will have these conversations and they won’t be easy. They will be bold, hard and uncomfortable and that’s okay! I think part of it is that as a society we are afraid to have these conversations.”

“Unfortunately, those conversations aren’t taking place to the extent that they should and as a result we are lacking really creative solutions and outcome-oriented responses to what is going to plague the future of our workforce,” Nuvyn added.

She related a story of her own that relates both how uncomfortable and necessary those conversations are—even for women already in leadership.

While pregnant with her third child, Nuvyn had a great boss at the University of Calgary where she headed their philanthropic fundraising, but had been stressing the conversation about her maternity leave.

“I wanted to still stay involved, but I didn’t know what that looked like to have one foot in the workforce and one at home. I was stressing about that ‘work/life’ balance and having that conversation, but all she said was, ‘Nuvyn, you’re a valuable member of the team. You let me know how I can support you,’” said Nuvyn. “Immediately, it was, ‘OK, I can make this work.’”

Interestingly, while Nuvyn had a great boss, she was a bit dismayed to discover there was no policy to follow—as well as the reason for that omission.

"When I went to HR to fill out the paperwork for maternity leave, they looked at me and said, ‘Gosh, we don’t have any maternity leave policies outlined for people on the executive leadership team. We just figured that by the time you reached that level, you would be done with that by now,’” said Nuvyn. “They had no idea what do with me. How indicative is that about the assumptions around leadership that we make—or have made for us?”

A primary obstacle contributing to those assumptions is a lack of female leadership representation in the first place—resulting in inevitable gaps.

“Where the pipeline breaks down is often at the managerial level and that is where there is a lack of gender-diverse individuals who we want to bring to the leadership table. Sometimes, when there is a lack of experience around the leadership table, it is hard to ask the right questions or see the importance of pursuing solutions if those questions do arise,” said Nuvyn, while proposing a unique solution. “Because there exists a lack of personal experience or leadership perspective, companies should be reaching down the organizational chart and pulling out people with these experiences to get their input—asking people beyond the traditional satisfaction survey is key.”

Regardless, if you are a woman, Nuvyn noted, the onus might just still be on you to start that conversation.

“Having male champions and allies is fantastic, but women need to be loud and speak out about what is working and what is not,” said Nuvyn. “Women also need to be able to say to their employer, ‘This is how I bring value to your organization.’”

Most importantly, employers need to listen and take action—before the competition does.

As for what empowers her own continued action, Nuvyn only has to reflect upon her time with the Tahirih Justice Centre to inspire others in their efforts to retain and promote women into positions of leadership—and true impact on tomorrow.

“If there is one reason to keep going, it’s that this isn’t just about us in the first world where we can talk about employment benefits. What a luxury. You do this for all women because we are all in this together and we can’t lose sight of that,” said Nuvyn.“If there is something that is going to shape your world view around access, freedom and empowerment, you spend time with these young women girls who have been trafficked or fled incredible injustices.”

“That makes you a warrior.”