International Women's Day 2019: The human side of leadership


In March of 2019, RSM Canada celebrates International Women’s Day (IWD). This year’s theme #BalanceforBetter celebrates the achievements of women while continuing to advocate for a gender-balanced world where all humans receive an equal degree of respect and access. IWD 2019 extends the significance of balance beyond a woman’s issue to an issue that affects all.

To engage in the festivities, RSM Canada spotlights three RSM Canada leaders who have successfully achieved balance in their professional and personal lives: Maria Severino, National Tax Leader; Marsha Smalley, Partner, Audit; and Rhonda Klosler, Chief Operating Officer and Toronto Office Managing Partner. These women continually inspire and support both the growth of our firm and the growth of our RSM colleagues, locally and internationally.

What opportunities and challenges have you encountered in your career related to gender?

Maria: While I myself have not encountered many challenges related to gender, I do see that at the partner level there is still a dearth of female leadership. Professional services firms tend to have less of an issue achieving gender parity. That said, I have witnessed gender bias at work. In one instance, rather than hiring a woman returning from maternity leave, a particular job went to a male counterpart based on the assumption that this job may interfere with the female professional’s family obligations. It is important for me and others to continually call out this behaviour and ensure that it does not continue.

Marsha: I have experienced my fair share of challenges as a working mom of three children; despite having a lot of support from my husband, work-life balance has been a struggle over the years. Trying to balance the demands of children along with the demands of the office can feel like an every day juggling act.

I have also experienced gender bias amongst clients. Early on in my career, I had taken over a farming client who was very vocal in his opinion that I should be at home and not working so I sat down with him and explained that maybe it was time for him to get a new accountant. My courage to have that difficult conversation paid off, though, because today we have a great relationship. He respects my work and calls for advice without hesitation.  

Rhonda: I can honestly say I have not really been challenged from a gender perspective. I have never felt like I have been held back. I spent my career surrounded by men who put forward the best candidate regardless of gender. I am aware that this is a unique experience; this is why it is important for me to work from within and do my best to change this. However, like Marsha, I have also encountered some bias interacting with clients. Certain clients do not want to deal with women, especially those who may be of a smaller stature and appear young. It is important to go toe-to-toe, be confident and earn that trust.

When you started your career, what do you wish you knew then that you know now?

Maria: Looking back to the beginning of my career, I wish that I had sought out women leaders and learned from them. Starting off, I did not do that and so I had to navigate it on my own. Learning from someone who has gone through the challenges of rising through the ranks as a woman and getting their perspective would have been beneficial for me at that time.

Marsha: I wish I had known then that it is okay to be a strong female who speaks her mind because it does not mean that you are aggressive. It is important to stand up for yourself. People do not have to like what you are saying as long as you feel you are portraying your own beliefs in a way that is true to yourself.

Rhonda: For me, I wish I had understood the importance of a network early on. I am not from Toronto and my family was not in Toronto, so it took a number of years to develop a network of my own locally. Professional relationships are so important for women.

Who has been an inspiration or mentor for you and why?

Maria: I have been blessed with many inspirational people in my life. Personally, my mom is a great inspiration to me. My father passed away very early in my life and watching my mother go through that motivated me to always make sure that I remained independent. Oprah Winfrey’s determination and success as a woman in the workplace, despite her challenges, was also an inspiration to me growing up. Today, I am inspired by watching many of my male and female colleagues balance family life with their careers successfully.

Marsha: I did not have a mentor per se; I simply fell in love with accounting. When I joined the predecessor firm in Red Deer (Alberta) as a student, all the partners were male and there were no women in a management role. I knew immediately that I wanted to become the first female partner at the office and this became my own personal goal. I worked my way through the ranks and finally achieved it. So, I suppose you could say accounting was my inspiration.

Rhonda: I have been lucky to have many mentors but one that stands out is Gail Weiler. She was the first female partner in the Toronto office of a Big Four firm, a great accomplishment and a tough challenge. Gail did not back down from a difficult conversation and she never thought of herself as different. She grabbed every opportunity. I learned from Gail that having a voice, presence and confidence matter.

How do you successfully combine family and career?

Maria: As a mother of three, I can say unequivocally that you can have it all. The trick is to find out where you need support and get it, both at home and in the workplace. Many women feel like they have to be superwomen that, somehow, have to do everything perfectly all the time. It is important to let go of that. Understand that things are not going to be perfect. Today more than ever, there are modern conveniences at our fingertips. You may not be able to make the homemade cupcakes but you can buy them! You may not be able to do the laundry but you can hire somebody to help you with it. Flexible work arrangements and technology have made this far easier than ever before. It is important that women take full advantage of the support they need.

Marsha: Having a very supportive husband in my world has allowed me to focus on both my children and my work. Our office has also given me the flexibility I need to be able to balance my children’s needs with those of my clients. Flexible work arrangements are a must. For this to work, it is important to be able to give and take.

Rhonda: I view work-life balance more as work-life integration; no parts of life turn on or off. It’s a question of integrating everything harmoniously. I have successfully integrated my career and my family life largely because I understand it takes a village. I have a husband, friends and a network who support me and I also understand that it is important to put my hand up and ask for help when I need it. It is not a sign of weakness.

How do you see your role in supporting more junior females in their career?

Maria: My role is to be available and to be aware. I may see something in the junior professionals around me that they do not yet see in themselves. It is important that I approach them and offer support and suggestions that would help them move up in the organization, as well as advocate for them. Sometimes we wait for women to come to us as leaders but it is a two-way street. Both men and women need to be aware, be proactive and be the sponsors of change.

Marsha:  It is important to me that young women entering the professional workplace get a realistic picture of what it looks like to balance their new career with their life; whether that life involves a family, volunteer activities, or other business ventures. I try to make myself available for women who are struggling with this balance and reassure them that there is no need to feel guilty – it is okay to be a mom and have a career and on the other hand it is okay to not have children and completely focus on your career. Each woman is different and we have to be strong enough to make our own decisions for what fits our lifestyle and create a positive, supportive space for all of those lifestyle choices.  

Rhonda: I create a positive environment where women feel empowered and equal and part of a community. Like Marsha, I strive to share my challenges and make myself accessible and real. Making time for these conversations and helping others is one of my personal goals. We also have to do this for young male professionals because men want to spend time with their children just as much as women do.

What will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of female leaders? 

Maria: The greatest challenge will be to sustain momentum, advocate and educate. Diversity of perspectives in the workplace is a key differentiator in achieving success. It is a great time to be a female leader; we have made a lot of strides. But as many strides as we have made, we still have a long way to go.

Marsha: Adapting to an increasingly non-traditional workforce is what I see as the greatest challenge. Remote access, technology and adapting our workplace to meet the changing demands of employees is vital so that we can create an inclusive environment where our staff want to be.

Rhonda: I see the greatest challenge as the need for an enormous shift in mindset. There is no quick fix here. The lack of female representation in leadership will still be a problem in 10 years time. Companies need to be purposeful and deliberate and commit to including women at the leadership table. Diversity and the ability to challenge the norm is a key competitive edge which many companies are currently losing because they cannot adapt fast enough. Businesses are going to become more complex so diversity of thought in professional services and elsewhere will be the key to success.


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