HSBC Diversity Series with Mandy Farmer
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‘The onus is on companies’ to build pipelines for female talent

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In Conversation With… Mandy Farmer, President and CEO, Accent Inns & Hotel Zed

We recently sat down with Mandy Farmer, President and CEO of Accent Inns and Hotel Zed, a family-owned hotel chain in British Columbia. Mandy shared her thoughts on entrepreneurism, gender equality, resilience and the obstacles faced by women business leaders.

Tell us about your personal journey to becoming a successful leader. How did you do it?

Accent Inns is a family business, which certainly gave me a leg up.

I'm now heading a third-generation family business, so the pressure is on me. Nine out of 10 family businesses fail in the third generation, and I was determined that ours would thrive — which it is doing.

But this fear led me to get an executive MBA and surround myself with the brightest and most amazing people possible.

Did you always aspire to hold a senior leadership role?

No. In fact it wasn’t until I had been working in the family business for a few years that I realized I loved business and wanted to keep going. This realization didn't happen until I was 29. Before that I had no idea what I was going to do!

What do you feel are some of the biggest obstacles women still confront on the path to the C-suite?

We simply aren’t getting the jobs that are stepping stones to the C-suite. A Wall Street Journal study of executives at top companies shows that men on the way up overwhelmingly get the management jobs when a company’s profits and losses (P&L) are hanging in the balance. Roles with P&L responsibilities, such as heading a division, unit or brand, are what set executives on the CEO track. Women just aren’t getting those jobs the way men are.

We’re also treated differently, and therefore face more obstacles. When I am having a tough time in a situation I often wonder: “Would this be going differently if I was a man? Would this person be more willing to sell their hotel to me if I was a man?” These built-in biases against women are everywhere. A 2018 Network of Executive Women analysis showed senior women left their jobs at nearly four times the rate of men (27% vs. 7%). Women’s attrition is often directly related to the fact that they are treated differently and face more obstacles than men.

Companies just aren’t building pipelines for their female talent. In the hospitality industry, men are 10 times more likely to be promoted to the principal/partner or president levels than women, and 15.5 times more likely to be promoted to CEO, according to the Castell Project & Tourism HR Canada’s 2016 census.

Are there any specific industries where you feel there’s more opportunity for women to hold C-level positions than others?

Women can hold C-level positions in all industries. If a certain industry is more male-dominated and blind to the fact that diversity in leadership is a good thing, that’s their problem. Let’s just have some women smash the patriarchy there.

How important is mentorship in helping in the climb to the C-suite?

Mentorship is so important, and the problem is, again, that more men get mentored than women throughout their careers. And more men have sponsors in organizations championing them for promotions. A 2019 study of more than 3,000 professionals showed that more men than women said they had a strategic support network that included sponsors who championed them for promotions—nearly twice as many men said so, 79% versus 45% of women. That has to change.

What do companies need to do better to ensure women are considered for senior leadership positions?

Build that pipeline for female talent. Put leadership programs in place for your high-potential women and systemically add more women to your succession plans for top roles.

Companies need to ensure women in top roles are part of their metrics of success as a company. And boards need to stop hesitating to put women in top roles. A U.S. executive-search firm has noted that it takes an average of 269 days to place a female CEO, compared with 207 days to put a man in the job, which it attributes to boards remaining reluctant to pick a woman for the chief role.

There are countless statistics about how having a diverse leadership team is better for the business. Boards need to take note of this.

How can women overcome long-standing biases within their own organizations?

We all need to assert ourselves in the workplace. We need to make it known that we expect to be considered for these jobs.

But really, the onus is on the companies. Women aren’t doing anything they need to change. The problem is systemic bias. It literally starts before we are born. Girls wear pink, boys wear blue and, hey, what about people that don’t fit traditional gender norms? Where do they fit into the conversation? Diversity in leadership isn’t just about women.

Do you think we’ll ever reach a point where we’ll see 50/50 gender representation in the C-suite and on boards?

Yes! But what about non-white women? What about Black women, women of colour, Indigenous women and people who don’t fit gender norms? When will they all get fair representation? That needs to be part of the conversation.

What advice would you give to other women starting their careers with ambitions of holding leadership roles?

Ask for the promotion. Be clear about your ambitions.

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