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There are moments in life when we pause to reflect. For me, receiving a professional honor ⏤ being inducted into the Hall of Fame of the “100 most powerful women in Canada” ⏤ was just such an opportunity. After decades of working hard and focusing on my goals, I finally took a moment to look back on my achievements, to examine how exactly I got to that point in life and who helped me along the way. And that’s when I realized what a crucial influence my father was, and how his open willingness to reject traditional gender norms was so instrumental in my professional success.
My father owned a small-town hotel. I started working there at age five and not just restocking towels or running errands. I was allowed to check in guests when they arrived. Visitors would often comment on my role, comparing me to a boy for my level of confidence. They said that, like a boy, I was a take charge individual, quick to act. But they were also quick to add, I smiled like a girl, so I was “still likable.”
One comment, in particular, stands out in my memory. A guest looked at me, then turned to my father and said, “You could put your daughter in the back alley and she could fend for herself. I wish my son had half that gumption.” My dad beamed with pride. To him, it meant he was doing something right. He saw no reason that I couldn’t do what boys could do. The knowledge that my dad, the most influential male in my life, saw me as equal to boys helped inspire strength and confidence throughout my youth ⏤ and I took it with me into the workplace.
While most fields are still heavily run by men, I entered a particularly tough industry for women: mining. Facing down sexism, both spoken and unspoken, was a daily part of my professional life. It took grit and fearlessness. Fortunately, thanks in large part to how I was raised, I had plenty of both. My male colleagues expected women to show them deference; I challenged them and questioned the traditional ways of doing business. They expected me to clean up coffee cups after management meetings; I did no more than my share. They expected me to be cautious and demure and were stunned when I picked up the phone to book a meeting with Peter Lynch, the famous investor who wrote One Up on Wall Street. Basically, I acted like a go-getter professional ⏤ and exactly like the men in the office. In this environment, however, smiling wasn’t enough to make me “still likable.” I was a threat.
As a woman exhibiting these traits, I developed a reputation as too tough, too aggressive. Our company lawyer even warned people about me: “Look out if you disagree with her. It’s like walking into a buzzsaw.” I didn’t let it stop me. I understood from an early age that I could fend for myself, even in an alley. I stuck with the job, plowed through, and became a vice president.
My father’s view of me as independent, strong, and equal to men didn’t just affect how I approached work, however. It also affected how I approached life. I knew, for example, that he would never have wanted a man to ask him for my hand in marriage. His response, I have no doubt, would have been, “Don’t ask me, ask her! I’m not the one that has to live with you.” I’ve always felt equal in my relationships, and my husband and I have always been equals as parents.
As I came to understand how much my father’s decisions helped shape and empower me, I started to explore these issues further. I began to learn more about how these sexist ideas hurt boys and men ⏤ and how hurtful the remark that man at my dad’s hotel made would have been to his son if he had heard it. I developed a new way of seeing things, and have even checked my own prejudices. There are times in the past that I’ve failed to realize the emotional capacity of some men in the workplace.
I’ve come to recognize that there are certain kinds of energy people think of as “masculine” and “feminine.” And rather than asking people to give up their associations with gender, which can be a very tough task, I’ve learned that the opposite tactic is more useful: to get people to embrace the fact that everyone has some of each, and that we should all make the most of it. I even left corporate life to work on the idea full time, by advising businesses and organizations on what I call ‘Gender Physics.’ This new career is a chance to pass along the lessons I got from my dad ⏤ lessons that I have tried to pass on to my own children, who are now grown.
My advice to fathers with girls: Encourage self-reliance in your daughters. Don’t worry anymore about them than you do about your sons. Don’t treat your daughters as more precious and breakable. Treat them as equally resilient and strong. This goes for mothers, too, who can also fall into stereotypical thinking. Know that your daughters are equally capable. That way, they’ll learn from you that they are.
Betty-Ann Heggie is a corporate director, speaker, blogger, philanthropist, and mentor. A former senior vice president with PotashCorp, she’s the author of the book ‘Gender Physics’ and writes on gender dynamics at her website, bettyannheggie.com.