Lessons Learned from my Mother’s Bad Behaviour


Conventional wisdom tells us that children learn from the good example of their parents.  But something went haywire when my mother misbehaved in the office of the Prime Minister.  She defied the leadership of the Jamaica Civil Service Association by raising a topic that was not on the agenda in a meeting with the Prime Minister.  In less than 10 minutes, my mother secured an important policy change that gave women in management positions in the public service the same benefits as their male colleagues.

It was 1976, the first year of the United Nations’ Decade for Women.  The Government of Jamaica was committed to implementing gender equity policies.  Ironically, only male public service managers with over 10 years’ service could benefit from the payment of 50% of family vacation travel costs.  There was no justification for this discriminatory benefit.

The male-dominated executive of the association struck down every attempt my mother made to have the assisted vacation benefit extended to women.  These men also refused to have the elimination of gender-based discrimination listed among the Jamaica Civil Service Association’s priorities for change.  When the courtesy call visit to the Prime Minister was being planned, my mother was told that it was not the proper forum in which to raise “these controversial topics.”

Not one to burn bras or launch a public campaign against men, my mother chose to use her position of leadership to influence and create change by ‘properly’ misbehaving.  This meant taking the risk of crossing the line of political correctness in the highest office of political power. 

Three things I learned

  1. Don’t ask for forgiveness

Political correctness is the biggest hurdle to progress.  Being disruptive doesn’t always have to take the form of raucous demonstrations in the streets. My mother’s way of fighting for the cause was to secure a seat at the table, by getting elected and getting involved.   Going off-topic in the board room is a very valid and powerful tactic to militate for change.  My mother chose to break the rules of protocol.  She made no apology for doing so.  I learned from her, to never ask permission or apologize for doing the right thing.

  1. Know who holds the power

There is strength in numbers, that’s why enlisting the support of influencers is important.  However, in order to win, you always need to know who holds the power to make change happen.

The Executive Committee’s mandate was to make representations to leaders in government on behalf of public service employees.  My mother was not discouraged by the unwillingness of the male-dominated executive to advocate for gender equality.  She knew that it was the political directorate that held the power to make changes in policy.  Her ultimate goal was to get the Prime Minister’s attention and incite him to take action.

  1. What’s in it for them matters too

My mother presented the issue of employee benefits as a blind spot in the government’s policy of gender equality that could no longer be overlooked.  The Prime Minister understood from her intervention that changing the rules was the right thing to do, particularly at a time when the issue of women’s rights was high on the public agenda.  Removing gender-based discrimination in the public service would reinforce his commitment to women’s rights and earn for his government, greater credibility both locally and internationally.

The BIG picture

All of this happened over 40 years ago.  Although assisted payment of vacation travel is no longer a benefit in the public service, my mother’s commitment to the cause of gender equality continues to be part of her legacy.  She didn’t just take personal pride in fulfilling her professional ambition or sit on her hard-earned status of being among the first women in public service management.  She saw the big picture and decided to fight for a better and just world, so that many other women and men would have equal access to opportunities to achieve their ambitions and enjoy the benefits of their service.

The most valuable lesson I learned from my mother is that women should never be reticent about pursuing their ambitions or shy away from dissenting voices.  Aspiring to positions of leadership is one of the best ways to fight for a cause and create meaningful change.   Effective leadership requires the courage to take risks, even if it means you may have to ‘properly’ misbehave.   The outcome may surprise you.

See the BIG picture.  Focus on what’s important.






In the week that has followed International Women’s Day, I have read with interest some very impressive statistics on the progress women have made over the years. Earning the right to vote, ascension to leadership in Fortune 500 companies, success in male-dominated professions and legislation protecting safety, pay scales and employment access were in the mix of articles and social media posts published on or around March 8.

In spite of the progress, we must lament the fact that far too many women with limited access to economic opportunities continue to be persuaded or forced into prostitution and human trafficking situations, where they are sexually exploited for the profit and entertainment of unscrupulous men.

Just one month before International Women’s Day, the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition was released with the model on the cover removing her bikini bottom, leaving very little to the imagination. Appallingly outrageous!

But before you think I’m going to take a prudish position on this, I’ll say that I am thrilled that feminism has earned women the right to make our own choices. We can boldly be who we want to be, choose what we wear and how we wear or not wear what we want to wear. Bravo!

What I find appalling is the consensual use of a woman’s body as a sexual object to market men’s entertainment products. I am disappointed that the model on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover has chosen to have her body used in this way. It does nothing to uplift the portrayal and image of women and it is a slap in the face to the many women and men who are working so very hard to build respect and gender equality.

It is unfortunate that the media is neither an enabler nor a game changer in the quest for genuine gender equality. The 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report states that 74.4% of leading roles in Hollywood movies are portrayed by men. With the majority of movies telling men’s stories and women who too often play secondary roles as lovers, wives and girlfriends, it is no small wonder that stereotypes of women as sex objects continue to be perpetuated.

I am not advocating censure. I am advocating opportunities and choices for women to be positively portrayed in the media, which influences public perceptions. Bearing in mind that men make up approximately 50% of the population, women need to make responsible choices about the opportunities they accept in the domains of advertising and entertainment. In spite of any progress women make in the corporate, academic or any other field of economic activity, the portrayal of women in the media holds an even greater influence on the way in which women are perceived and treated by men.

I stand fully behind the programs that support women’s professional development. Kudos to the women and men who have launched projects to increase the proportion of women on corporate boards and in senior leadership positions. But since we believe in freedom of choice, not all women will choose to ascend the corporate hierarchical ladder, if and where it exists, in the new corporate world order.

The focus must be on empowering women and girls to develop their talents in whichever field they desire, and to have the self-confidence to decline offers of economic gain that objectify them for the benefit of men’s entertainment.

See the BIG picture.  Focus on what’s important.




Break through the mental glass ceiling!

I remember well a relative commenting on being unflustered on her promotion to the position of Commissioner of Income Tax in Jamaica.  She was the first woman to be appointed to that role.   An insightful comment she made has stayed with me over the years.  She said that many women have bought into the belief perpetuated by men, that there is some mystique about senior executive leadership.  This belief has prevented many women from accepting senior appointments, particularly roles that have been traditionally dominated by men.

Then I read an article in The New York Times where Virginia M. Rometty, the first woman to be appointed as the President and CEO of IBM, recounted that early in her career she was offered a ‘big job.’  In her words, “I right away said, you know what? I’m not ready for this job. I need more time, I need more experience and then I could really do it well.”  So she told the recruiter she needed time to think about it.  That night, her husband asked her, “Do you think a man would have ever answered that question that way?”

These two cases made me ask the question – are women really not qualified or do they really think that they are not qualified to take on senior leadership roles?

In her book Les femmes au secours de l’économie, Monique  Jérome –Forget presents data that provides compelling evidence that women have the education, talents and experience that make them ready for senior leadership roles.

This being the case, why would some women feel that they are not ready for senior leadership?  Could it be that there is a mental glass ceiling that limits self-confidence, makes us risk averse and so cautious to prevent us from accepting senior leadership roles?

It is ironic that being cautious and risk-averse are the traits that are needed in boardrooms and senior executive leadership positions.   A 2004 Catalyst study of 353 Fortune 500 companies found that firms with more diversity throughout the ranks, including the presence of women, have better returns on investment.

Networking is good, but not enough

In Montreal, I am finding more networking and learning opportunities to support women who aspire to become senior leaders and board members.   In these forums women are very often exposed to successful women who demystify senior leadership and provide testimonials of how they advanced in their careers and now thrive in male-dominated corporate boardrooms.  La Gouvernance au féminin, The Y des Femmes, Premières en affaires and La Conférence régionale des élus de Montréal  through Les Cravates roses project are examples of organizations that host formal networking events and conferences that applaud the success of women leaders and encourage and help train women to aspire to leadership roles.

Without discounting the value of networking events and conferences, I would say that these activities are not enough.   There needs to be a stronger connection between these networking activities and corporate initiatives to unite efforts that encourage women to overcome the psychological insecurities that are played out in the objections they make when they are offered senior leadership opportunities.

Some suggestions to help women break the mental glass ceiling

  • Corporations with formal policies on diversity and the development of leadership talent should establish formal partnerships with business networks and forums that support the advancement of women.   In this way professional women can identify corporations that provide formal support for women aspiring to senior leadership positions and explore opportunities for advancement in these companies.
  • When identifying their most promising leadership talent, corporations should ensure that they include rotation programs that provide exposure to all aspects of the business and in so doing, help demystify senior leadership roles in departments that have traditionally been led by men.
  • Externalize the values of the company by encouraging employees to accept volunteer leadership positions on the boards of professional associations, interest groups and non-profit organizations that share the same values of the company.  In this way, women gain experience in governance and leadership and expand their network and professional profile in a way that is beneficial to their career and the organizations in which they serve.
  • Corporations should establish programs that encourage employees to broaden their exposure to the experiences of other professionals by having internal and external mentors.  Corporations should not see the pairing of employees with external mentors as “training for the competition.”  Great workplaces attract, engage and retain the best employees, who won’t leave if they‘re able to see possibilities for advancement based on merit.
  • Women also need to make the effort to push beyond their comfort zone and break through the confines of their mental glass ceiling.  On this point, the advice of Marissa Mayer – CEO of Yahoo! is relevant:  “I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough. Sometimes that’s a sign that something really good is about to happen. You’re about to grow and learn a lot about yourself.”

A final word on the real corporate glass ceiling

I would not want to leave readers with the impression that all women have a mental glass ceiling that makes them reluctant to accept senior leadership positions.  As Monique Jerome-Forget points out in her book, the corporate glass ceiling does exist.  It is where there is a startling reduction in the percentage of women in the senior leadership and board membership roles.  A 2013 Catalyst report indicates that women make up 47% of the workforce, nearly 37% of management positions but only 18% of senior leadership roles and 14.5% of board memberships.

The data clearly shows us that much work must be done by corporations to encourage and promote women to senior positions and in so doing, we all benefit from the talent, education and skills of women.  I will end my post with a quote from Catalyst’s Women in Leadership report:

“High-potential women advance more slowly than their male peers, in terms of both career progression and pay, even though they employ career management strategies similar to men’s. Organizations that neglect this critical talent-management issue risk lagging their competitors in attracting, developing, and retaining the best candidates to serve as the next generation of leaders.”