The following was written by Leandre, a Pathways to Education alum from the Regent Park community in Toronto, Ontario. We are proud to join Leandre in celebrating International Women’s Day and the many young female leaders who are working for gender equality and #BalanceforBetter in their local communities.

It’s International Women’s day and, as someone who strives for gender equality in both my personal and professional lives, this year’s #BalanceforBetter theme has got me thinking.

When we talk about a successful career, we often mention how important work-life balance is and its role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The same can be said about our society when it comes to gender. We need balance amongst genders and gender identities in order to achieve and maintain a healthy society.

For me, #BalanceForBetter means finding a balance amongst genders and gender identities at the social, financial, and political levels, namely by having women and people who identify as non-binary or transgender in leadership roles.

Over the years I’ve been very lucky to work alongside some amazing female leaders, and those experiences have really shaped how I see myself in the world.

The first job I ever had was offered to me by a woman that, despite the lack of my experience, saw potential in me. I was about 16 years old at the time. I had run to the interview having no bus money—hence the need for a job—and was panting as I got to the door. I took a deep breath, sat upright, and answered the series of questions she asked about my education and volunteer experience.

At the end of it she said, “So, you don’t have any work experience.”

“No,” I replied, a little defeated.

“Well, everyone deserves a chance,” she said. “When can you start?”

And so, the following week I began working as a hostess at a Mexican restaurant. This seemingly simple act—the woman’s recognition of my potential and her willingness to overlook my lack of experience—would end up being a huge reason I was able to obtain subsequent jobs. She opened the first door to my professional career, allowing me to gain valuable customer service, numeracy, and communication skills—skillsets that only grew over time.  

I’m 23 years old now, having worked and volunteered for amazing organizations—many of whom have had women in senior leadership roles.

I’ve volunteered with Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl for five years under the inspirational CEO Caroline Riseboro and a host of other fantastic women.

I worked at the Status of Women Canada, under then Minister Patty Hajdu (now Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour).

And I’ve worked at Pathways to Education Canada, which not only had phenomenal female representation on the ground through local staff and mentors, but also at the executive level, with strong female leaders like Sue Gillespie, Pathways to Education Canada’s President and CEO, and Carolyn Acker, the organization’s Founder.

These women are great examples of leaders who are balancing the scale that ever so often tips in favor of men. But it’s not just up to women. And you don’t need to be a CEO or senior executive to take action. We can all—and, I would argue, all need to—work towards gender balance in our society.

If you’re not sure how you can take action in your daily life, here are some practical steps that you can take to help achieve #BalanceforBetter.

Educate yourself

  • Do your research. That doesn’t mean you need to head over to the library and start researching statistics. It could simply mean that you choose to be more culturally aware, or start having open conversations about gender with the people in your life.
  • Observational research (*cough* people watching *cough*) is also a valid research method and can help you develop a more critical eye on the world and how we’re treated based on our gender.   
  • If you’re not as into people watching as I am, you could always pick up a book to learn about a new perspective. For instance, I’m currently reading “Equality For Women = Prosperity For All” by Augusto Lopez-Claros and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani. One of my favourite lines from the book goes as follows: “When women are deprived of their rights, economies are eroded, democracies are weakened, and the fabric of societies radically undermined.”

Mentor other women and facilitate female-led mentorships

  • It’s hard to be what we can’t see, which is why female-led mentorships are so important.
  • During high school, I was lucky to have both female and male mentors through Pathways to Education. The male mentors gave me the encouragement I needed to persevere in school, but the female mentors gave me the representation I needed to believe that it was worth persevering. Their mere presence said, “Hey, I made it and so will you.”
  • I didn’t know exactly where I would be 10 years down the line, but I could see other black women who had bachelor’s degrees, despite the challenges they faced in their communities. These women served as somewhat of a proxy for my dreams and aspirations.
  • In addition to Pathways to Education, which has program locations across the country, here are two mentorship programs that I’m familiar with: 1) Regent Park’s Girls E-Mentorship (GEM) Innovation, which is a great resource for Toronto-based women who want to mentor young girls and 2) G(irls)20’s Girls on Boards, which I’d recommend to any young woman who wants to sit on a board in her community and who envisions herself in a senior leadership position.

Put your money where your mouth is

  • Another simple, but very powerful, thing you can do is to support female-owned businesses.
  • I was inspired to start doing this when I joined the Economic Club of Canada’s female chapter, Girl Gang, who employ female-owned businesses at their events (e.g., caterers). This showed me that it’s not just about talk; it’s about action.
  • In addition to supporting female-owned businesses (from companies you employ to the stores you shop at and the products you buy), you can also donate to organizations that are working to reduce the gender gap.

Volunteer your time

  • It’s not just about your dollars. How you spend your time can be just as meaningful.
  • If you don’t have money to give, you can donate your time by joining groups, clubs, or associations that are working to eliminate gender inequality.
  • Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl (Speakers Bureau) and the Economic Club of Canada’s Girl Gang are two that I’ve been a part of.

Be a respectful leader

  • If you’re in a position of power, take steps to ensure there is an equitable gender balance within your community, organization, etc. Women tend to raise their hands more slowly than men do, and are interrupted more often than men. Be aware of these dynamics and ensure you’re actively creating an environment where women are supported and are able to thrive.
  • For example, when asking a question in a meeting, give people ample time to formulate their thoughts and answer the question. If someone is interrupted, step in and ask them to finish what they had been saying.

We all have dreams that we aspire to achieve. But sometimes the crushing weight of gender inequality keeps us from dreaming BIG—from seeing our own potential.

But you know what? Just like the woman who saw the potential in 16-year-old me, I see your potential. So, dream BIG because it’s possible for you to be that CEO, that doctor, that scientist, or that teacher—whatever it is that you want to be—just as it’s possible for us to live in a world that’s more committed to gender equality.

But first, we must all be committed to pulling our weight in lightening the load towards #BalanceforBetter. This starts by having diverse decision-makers, diverse educators, and a greater appreciation for gender diversity. And it starts by having open and honest conversations, no matter how hard they may seem.

With companies (like Gillette’s “We believe: The best men can be,” commercial) and individuals around the globe taking big steps towards gender quality (like the #MeToo movement and the #HeForShe campaign), I believe that the pendulum is swinging and it’s swinging in the right direction.

I’m proud of how far we’ve come and how far we’re going, and because of that I’m happy to celebrate this day with you. So, cheers to International Women’s Day and greater equality among all genders. Let’s make sure that our efforts are indeed for the betterment of ourselves and the generation to come.