DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) is very close to my heart. I am an immigrant, racial minority, and a woman who has a young daughter. Among numerous aspects of DEI, gender diversity in the workplace is what I’m most passionate about. And this blog is all about that.
Celebrating International Women's Day
In honour of International Women’s Day, we asked nonprofits and charities to share their stories related to this year’s theme, #ChooseToChallenge. Our promise was to choose a winner and share their story with our audience broadly on our website and other digital channels. We received 28 submissions. It was a truly humbling experience to review the submissions. Our team was amazed and inspired by the stories of the meaningful and very much necessary work that those nonprofits and charities do on a daily basis for their communities. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who shared your story with us.
Among 28 amazing stories, the chosen story belongs to Kessler Foundation. How they support their female staff, how they truly achieved gender diversity in their workplace (especially in the STEM field which is typically male dominant), and how their leadership team comprises mainly women are some of the reasons why their story was chosen.
I had a great honour of spending some time with Michele Pignatello, Vice President and Chief Development Officer, and Nancy Chiaravalloti, Director, Neuropsychology & Neuroscience and Traumatic Brain Injury Research, and hearing their stories in detail.
Interview with Kessler Foundation on how to promote gender diversity and inclusion in the workplace
Mihae: Thank you so much again for submitting your story, sharing your story with us and being here today on the call. Would love to hear your story in more detail, including what the Kessler Foundation does, how your organization supports gender diversity, and finally your own journey in your career. Everyone has their own story. Your story, as a woman in business and science, will be so inspiring to many women out there, I’m sure. Do we want to start with the Foundation’s story?
Michele: Kessler Foundation, with the support of our various generous donors, is in the business of changing the lives of people with disabilities. We conduct ground-breaking rehabilitation research. Nancy Chevrolet is one of our senior researchers to help people recover from brain spinal cord injury, stroke and MS. Basically, we are looking at two aspects of functioning: 1) cognition - the way we think, learn, and remember; and 2) mobility - the way we move. Another aspect of our mission is grant making. We make grants to other non-profit organizations that are helping people with disabilities gain access to employment.
What we really say here at the foundation is that “it’s abilities, not disabilities that matter”. And we are really striving for an inclusive world that focuses on inclusivity and many aspects of diversity, including gender diversity. Most of our scientists are women. Our leadership team is also mostly comprised of women. Our culture here has a very strong work-life balance. We strongly support women to advance their careers at the same time, have families.
Mihae: Right, so most leadership team members and many scientists in the organization are women. Did you have a specific intention and initiative to hire more women?
Michele: That is a very interesting question. Our CFO is a woman who has been in the position for many years, which is unusual. It is an unusual position for a woman to hold, especially for so long. I think that when you have an organization where there are female leaders, then it naturally grows that way. I mean, Nancy is one of our longest standing employees and she began her career at the foundation too. So, I think it’s naturally grown but it’s also been something we value.
“The effort is to make the workplace work for the women, not make the women adapt to their workplace.”
Nancy: I can tell you it has changed over the years. I started in 1999 as a research fellow. I’ve loved the work that I was doing so I chose to stay all these years. And I moved into administration when I was pregnant with my first son, so it was probably in 2002, maybe 2003. When I was at administrative meetings, I was one of the two women in the room.
Now, it’s not like that at all. Now it’s at least 50/50 at these administrative meetings, maybe even higher on the female side. So, it is a very different environment now and it’s wonderful to see it transition that way. I like to think I was part of that because I had, you know, started very early in this spectrum of change. But I think it is a great way that the foundation has grown over the years, and it really shows and demonstrates the attitude that the foundation has towards women in the workplace. The effort is to make the workplace work for the women, not make the women adapt to their workplace.
I mean obviously, if your career is important to you, you have to adapt. You have to make it work. You have a job, and you have to get the job done. That’s basically the expectation. But if 9-5 doesn’t work for you, then we figure something else out to make it work around your other responsibilities so that you can have a full life and you can achieve that work-life balance.
And I think if there is one thing we have learned over the past year in this pandemic, is that flexibility is the key to success. Like if you were not flexible this past year, you did not achieve much at all. And I think Kessler Foundation was pivotal in their ability to adapt to the pandemic to have people work from home completely at first and then gradually transitions back into the workplace and then reverse it when we had to, you know when the numbers went back up again, we had to kind of back down a little bit. And I think that the foundation really serves as a model and how adaptability has assured that our success was maintained through a very difficult period of time.
“You let your people do their best versus forcing them to fit into some prescribed formula.”
Michele: I think that also a part of what makes it successful is that ability and willingness to work with people to have schedules adapted and be flexible. And then you get loyalty and commitment from people. You let your people do their best versus forcing them to fit into some prescribed formula. Your people can achieve at the highest level when you let them have passion for what they do, and you let them do what they love, you know, spend time with their family and take care of their family.
Diversity and Inclusion Best Practices
Mihae: True. And another thing that was inspiring about your story in your submission was how many female scientists you have in your organization. STEM, like the technology industry that I’m in, is male dominant. Do you have any stories around that? How could you attract many talented female scientists?
Nancy: Well, first I think talent breeds talent. So, when we recruit, I do think we are very attractive to some of the young talent because we have had success and they see that, and they want to be a part of it. So, we do get a nice applicant pool when we recruit for scientists. In addition, so I have 8 scientists that report directly to me, only two of them are men, so that is quite a difference, you know. We have a lot of female scientists. We do tend to try and recruit our scientists young, so many of them come through the postdoctoral fellowship or junior scientists’ path. And what that means is they get pregnant, and that is when they must grapple with these life decisions and it is a challenge. It is always a challenge and I have just gone through this with two of my scientists this year who had babies. They are hesitant. They do not want to leave their baby. They don’t want to necessarily come back to the workplace.
They talked to me very honestly because I have a 17-year-old, a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old. So, I’ve been through this. I worked the whole time, so they know that I’m going to be honest with them and I think that’s the key. One is being honest with them about what is going to come down the pipe. But the one thing I always say to them is what my husband said to me when I had my first son. I didn’t want to go back to work because I didn’t want to leave him. He said “Do me a favour, go back for three months. If you don’t want to work after that, then we will figure something out.” And that’s what I say to my fellows or my new junior scientists when they go out on maternity leave. I say “Listen, enjoy your leave. It’s a wonderful time. Enjoy every minute of it because it goes by way too fast. But make sure you come back even if it’s only three months or so. Come back, see how it feels to be back, see how it feels to be away from the baby and then if you want to stay home after that, then that’s your decision. But I want you to feel what it’s like because what you are is important independent of the baby that you are about to have.” And that is generally what happens and what we generally say.
Michele: I have been with the foundation since 2014. I have a 19-year-old and an almost 17-year-old. It was very difficult going back to work after my leaves, which I did enjoy. It was heartbreaking but I also knew that I needed to have the career that I really care about. I'm a fundraiser. It’s a female-dominant field. I have been blessed with having many mentors throughout my career to guide me, build me into what I have become. I’m so glad that my daughters can look up to me and see that I am a supportive mother and have a successful career. I’ve been fortunate to have employers, including the Foundation, who have respected both parts of me as a person.
Mihae: Right. So, we talked about what the Foundation does and how it supports gender diversity. Do you have a specific initiative tied to the theme of international women's day 2021, #ChooseToChallenge?
Michele: We focus our efforts on celebrating female scientists in honour of International Women’s Day and also International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
Mihae: What would be your top suggestions and recommendations for women, especially young women in business who have a long career in front of them?
Michele: I think finding mentors who can help you grow and being a mentor to others whom you can help grow in their career. A female mentor for a woman is really important. Somebody who is going to understand what it's like to work and raise a family at the same time.
“You don't have to act like someone else or act like a man to be successful. I think it’s important for them to maintain comfort in their own skin. The fact that they're female and they're at the table; that's perfectly acceptable and it's something to be proud of.”
Nancy: I would also add that it's important to recognize that it's no longer a male-dominated world. You don't have to act like a man to fit in that world. It’s okay to be there and still be a woman. There’s nothing wrong with that. It actually fits quite well. We talk a lot about the difference between men and women in science because there are just some very basic differences between men and women and the way they approach situations. The way they approach disagreements. I think it's important to recognize that men will approach things differently. You approach things the way you're comfortable with. You don't have to act like someone else or act like a man to be successful. I think it’s important for them to maintain comfort in their own skin. The fact that they're female and they're at the table; that's perfectly acceptable and it's something to be proud of.
In our continuous effort to give back and support the nonprofit sector, we have recently launched this #ShareYourStory initiative. Each month has a dedicated topic/cause. We’re asking nonprofits and charities to share their stories related to the topic/cause of the month. We’ll review the submissions and vote internally to choose one story to share with our broader audience on our website and other digital channels.
The Kessler Foundation’s story above is our story of the month in March. The theme for April is #RestoreOurEarth, promoting sustainability in honour of International Earth Day on April 22, 2021. Got a story you want to share about how your organization is addressing ways to restore our earth? Fill out our form before Monday, March 22, 2021 to be considered. If you want to learn more about this initiative, or topics for the other months, please reach out to us.