Celebrating Women in Leadership: Insights from Jacquelyn Wright

|  Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Celebrating Women in Leadership: Insights from Jacquelyn Wright
In honour of Women's Month, our President & CEO, Jacquelyn Wright, shares, in her own words, her leadership journey throughout the charitable sector. She reflects on the milestones, challenges, and lessons learned along the way, and explores the importance of mentorship, the evolving landscape of women in international development, and her vision for a more inclusive and empowered future for women in the sector.


My Leadership Journey

My journey into leadership within the charitable sector began during my teenage years in Calgary, where I actively participated in the YMCA and YWCA movements, particularly through camp leadership activities. Growing up in a family deeply engaged in non-profit and charitable organizations, including the Canadian Red Cross, instilled in me a natural inclination for service.

In my twenties, after traveling overseas for a couple of years, I felt a strong desire to integrate different aspects of my life and found my way to the Canadian Red Cross. Working there marked the beginning of my journey as an international delegate, allowing me to contribute to relief efforts both in Canada and in regions affected by natural disasters or conflict around the world.

Over time, these experiences helped develop my leadership skills. Pursuing a Master of Arts in Leadership at Royal Roads University further solidified my understanding of leadership dynamics, particularly with a focus on women in leadership roles. This was a significant achievement in my career journey because it allowed me to consolidate a lifetime of learning and engage in meaningful discussions with people from all walks of life, testing, refining, and digging deeper into my ideas about leadership values. This milestone played a crucial role in illuminating the direction I wanted to take in my career, propelling me into more senior positions within the sector.

Additionally, I developed a deep curiosity for working cross-culturally. Around the world, leadership can mean many different things so I committed myself to fostering trust and respect across cultural boundaries. In my view, leadership is a two-way street where everyone has something to teach and learn from one another. I learn so much from others every day. Embracing a leadership style rooted in respect, integrity, and equality is the most effective approach for me.

Reflecting on my journey, I acknowledge that I'm not the same leader I once was. I have learned so much about what it takes to foster environments where individuals can thrive and are treated equitably. My personal experience has shaped my perspective as well. I remain acutely aware of my position as a white woman who comes from privilege. Constantly checking my privilege is imperative, particularly in the work we undertake.

Diversity in leadership is not just beneficial, it's essential. It plays a crucial role in fostering richer dialogues, more effective decision-making, and innovative solutions. Every voice impacted by decisions deserves representation at the table during discussions. Diversity in leadership opens the door for this inclusivity to thrive.
Jacquelyn Wright

Barriers & Challenges

Navigating leadership challenges as a woman has been a recurring theme in my career. Often finding myself as the sole woman in leadership positions or within traditionally patriarchal structures has presented significant cross-cultural hurdles. However, these situations have served as valuable opportunities to learn and understand where others are coming from and to work toward a solution that works for everyone.

I, like many women, have encountered instances where I felt undervalued and overlooked, facing barriers such as not being taken seriously or being passed over for promotions. Data from the Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org reveals that women in Canada and the United States are notably underrepresented in leadership roles, comprising only one in four senior (C-suite) leaders. This disparity is even more pronounced for women of colour, who represent just one in 16. This is despite women's growing ambition, with nine in ten women under 30 aspiring to be promoted and three in four aiming for senior leadership roles.

As a feminist leader, I prioritize listening and consensus-building, yet sometimes face resistance from those who may not appreciate this approach. In such moments, it can be disheartening to feel disregarded and sidelined - like your voice is not heard.

Women in the International Development Sector

The evolving landscape of women in leadership positions within our sector is a promising trend. We are witnessing more women stepping into these roles with exceptional effectiveness. In a sector centered on people and humanity, the presence of women in leadership positions adds a unique and valuable dimension. I am also thrilled to see an increasing number of women of colour assuming leadership roles across the sector.

Diversity in leadership is not just beneficial, it's essential. It plays a crucial role in fostering richer dialogues, more effective decision-making, and innovative solutions. Every voice impacted by decisions deserves representation at the table during discussions. Diversity in leadership opens the door for this inclusivity to thrive.

To enable meaningful change, organizations must be bold in their approach. Setting clear goals and operational guidelines is just the beginning. This transformation doesn't happen overnight; it requires steadfast commitment, not just on paper or in words, but with concrete actions taken one step at a time. At CFTC, we are embarking on this journey, which is enlightening, exciting, and challenging all at once, as we strive to cultivate a culture of inclusivity where everyone, regardless of their gender, and other identities, is empowered to pursue and excel in leadership roles.

Looking ahead, a significant development anticipated for women in leadership within the charitable and international development sector is decolonizing the sector's practices. This transcends gender and is a crucial step for all organizations to undertake. It entails dismantling paternalistic and white savior complexes ingrained in the sector, and instead, shifting power to the local partners actively engaged in community work. Empowering communities to determine their own futures is paramount, and it's a central focus of my leadership at CFTC. This shift necessitates a comprehensive overhaul of systems, processes, and organizational culture to align with this ethos. There’s incredible space for women in that.


Remember, there is no such thing as a born leader. We’re all leaders in our own ways, whether it's in parenting, teaching, or other roles. Recognize and embrace your leadership potential in all areas of your life.
Jacquelyn Wright

Mentorship

Mentorship has played a significant role in shaping my leadership journey, especially in its early stages. Now in turn, I am thrilled to be a mentor to other women within the sector, engaging in discussions about leadership and career development. Being able to offer support and guidance to others is something I cherish deeply.

The landscape of leadership today is different from when I began, but I believe I have valuable insights, experiences, and connections to share with aspiring leaders. I love to see people succeed. Fostering an atmosphere of openness and approachability where people can feel safe and easily speak with you is key to effective mentorship.

In my early days at the Canadian Red Cross, a woman leader gave me, and many of my colleagues, the opportunity to learn and develop under her guidance and friendship. I have always wanted to pay this forward. An example of this is when I worked with the Canadian Red Cross as the Country Representative in Indonesia. I advocated for a member of my local team, who I had been working closely with, to be given my leadership role once I departed the delegation, which is something that was rarely done in those days.

In addition to mentorship, I strongly believe it’s important to mention that women frequently shoulder responsibilities such as childcare and elder care, which can impact their ability to pursue leadership roles. By recognizing and accommodating these responsibilities, the sector can create more inclusive opportunities for women to assume leadership positions.

Looking Ahead

My philosophy of competent leadership is grounded in the belief that it is attained through learned skills and behaviours, coupled with shared values of mutual respect, trust, and integrity. And so we need to take the time for self-reflection to understand our own power and privilege. We must question whether our actions align with these values or if they are influenced by biases such as racism, sexism, or privilege.

My advice to women aspiring to leadership roles in the sector is to adopt an attitude of lifelong learning and curiosity. Leadership takes various forms and can be found in many different contexts beyond formal positions. Leaders are everywhere. Seek out people who share your values and collaborate with them to build a collective vision together.

Deeply understanding yourself is crucial for effective leadership, which may be uncomfortable or difficult. It means you might have to do some work of introspection to unpack what’s going on for you.

Remember, there is no such thing as a born leader. We’re all leaders in our own ways, whether it's in parenting, teaching, or other roles. Recognize and embrace your leadership potential in all areas of your life.