Women and leadership: Reflections on being an unintentional woman leader

Written by
Rachel Kiddell-Monroe
Published on
May 14, 2023

Late last year, I was invited to speak on an all-female Women and Leadership Panel at the Business Families Summit of Minds.

Frankly, the invitation came as a surprise. And not only because I am not a member of the business community. My first reaction was to feel like an imposter as I saw the list of women business icons and leaders in Quebec and Canada. My second thought, unrelated to my personal existentialism, was why aren’t there any men on the panel? My third thought was: Wow! Am I a woman leader?

I set up an Amnesty International chapter at my school when I was 13. By 23 I was in the jungle of Indonesia working with Indigenous tribes to fight logging and government relocation policies. The next 25 years were spent leading projects with Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders focusing on bringing assistance to populations in danger due to war, conflict and epidemics and leading Universities Allied for Essential Medicines fighting for access to medicines justice. I have worked with so many extraordinary, brave men and women, from all backgrounds and all age groups. I had always thought of myself as contributing to the mission rather than being a leader.

The Summit was a gift. My friends and colleagues soon convinced me that I was not an imposter and I had a lot to say on women and leadership. So I dived in and I am glad I did.

The following is an adaptation of what I shared with the conference attendees in November 2019.

Last night President Obama was in Montreal. He told us that despite all the gloom and doom of politics, polarization, climate change, inequality, there has never been a better time in history to be born and alive.

A message of hope.

I believe that too. But this time in history is one where we have to realize that we need change.


There is no doubt that our planet is on a precipice, humanity on a knife’s edge and women are a critical part of the solution. It is not time to sit by, it is a time to lead. In our world today we need a radical change in approach to governance, including in family businesses, if we are going to meet the existential threats facing our planet and our societies.

Women of all backgrounds need to work alongside men of all backgrounds in a new way, in a new model of governance; Given the state of today’s world, women in leadership cannot be a luxury, nor a way to tick the box of political correctness and gender equity. Women leaders are essential partners if we want to positively change the course that our planet and our human societies are on.

As Steve Case told us today, it is not that women feel left out, they ARE left out. As are men of colour, people outside binary definitions, as are the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the dispossessed…
In a move to purpose-driven capitalism, do women hold the key to creating the drive for a new form of governance, a governance-based on people and community interests, not individual and self-interest? I think so.

Gender equity is critical (and we are definitely nowhere near there yet) – it is the only way to get through the blindness of a local and global system which has consistently created (intentionally or not) structural barriers to female leadership.

But it’s not enough. We do not need equity for equity’s sake but we need equity because the world needs women leaders like never before. We need women working alongside enlightened and open male counterparts in a new governance construct.

By infusing the system with women leaders who bring the qualities to achieve this new model of governance, change can come which will unite us and allow our planet and life on earth to not just survive but to thrive.

The qualities and values women bring are well known but now is the time to elevate them to where they belong. Humanity and solidarity. Empathy and communication. These are not soft skills – these are core values and approaches which will be key drivers for a new governance approach which values equity, diversity, participation, collaboration, inclusion, and partnership. And women are uniquely placed to help lead the way.

But women need to address some issues if this is to work. There is no place or space for women hate. Madeleine Albright said there was “a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”. I agree and I am tired of both being a victim of woman hate and seeing women hate meted out to others. We can be better. We need to be better than that. But we have to acknowledge that this strange cannibalistic attitude is both fed and created by a system which, even if unknowingly, encourages or even requires that. Even many of the most aware and sensitive men I know simply do not see the injustice of the system.

There is no place or space to be complacent or satisfied with making it as a leader in the current system. Many of us have fought within the current system to make our voices heard. And to do that we have had to play by the rules of the system. This system sees so-called feminine attributes of empathy and caring as soft skills which are nice but have no real place in business. First, let me say they may be feminine attributes, but feminine attributes are not the sole property of women. And a system that is inherently inequitable and oftentimes racist can never be accepted or even tolerated. As leaders, whether men or women, we are obliged to challenge it.

There is no space or place to hide our families. How many of us have forced a slightly sick child to go to school or daycare because we have a big work meeting that day that “I simply can’t miss”? Got the “rolling-eye” treatment from colleagues for leaving work early for school pick up as if we are having special privileges? No one taking into account we arrived at work at least an hour before everyone else. How many of us have been relegated to a windowless room to breastfeed or pump milk at work so other staff members don’t feel uncomfortable (you try pumping milk – it is us who feels uncomfortable, I assure you!)? How many women have been denied flexible hours to adapt to family life and been told we’d love too but we can’t make exceptions or it would not be fair on the rest of the staff?

It all sounds so 1980s. But I am talking about 1998, 2002 and 2007. I can safely bet that it is still the experience of many women today.

In my world, there can be no hard separation between my work and family life. I have consistently refused all efforts to deny my motherhood and to begrudge my family responsibilities. I took my babies to work; I campaigned at the AIDS conference in Toronto with a 3 and 7-year-old at my side… As part of that tradition, I invited two of my sons to this event. And certainly not because they need babysitting anymore (those 3 and 7-year-olds are now 17 and 21!) but because I believe we are part of the same world and that my work is a central part of how I show up in the world. And so are my children. So why would I not share my work with them and them with my work?

The system we have created and, let’s be honest, that many of us women have been complicit in, forces us to make choices. Choices we should not have to make. And it is time for women not just to rage about the failings of the system today. It is time for us to make the change. And that starts with us. It is not just about feeling good about being equal, getting the same pay and same treatment and not being penalized for being the ones who bear children. It is much, much bigger than that. It is about uplifting other women, supporting men who support women leaders, advocating for gender balance, taking pride in the fact that women are essential to changing the world for the better. Women leaders are at the heart of a new world that cares, that is empathic and that is sustainable. Women leaders are not a luxury. I believe they are key to the survival of the planet.”

Looking back on my experience at the Summit, I am grateful as it made me take a hard look at how I showed up in the world. I have always struggled with how to honour all the lives, the conflicts, the joys and the deaths that I have been privy to all over the world.

In 2018, I started my own organization. SeeChange is in many ways a culmination of my life’s experiences (…so far!) and I am channelling all that I have learnt through it. Which can be summarized in two words: Community First. By allowing and co-creating safe spaces, and ensuring adequate resources, communities are their own agents of change. Through SeeChange, we support communities who want to play a central role in their own health and wellness. Community First distils my experiences into a simple concept. It is how I have chosen to give back to those communities who shared a piece of their lives with me. And I will do that stepping into my role as a woman leader.

Photo bySeeChange Initiative

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