Photo credit: Bobo Zhao Photography
Paulina Cameron was due with her second child when we spoke over the phone in May. She was still working from her Vancouver office, where she’s the CEO of Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. Cameron, who grew up with immigrant and entrepreneurial parents, has dedicated her career to changing the narrative of women and work: bringing more women around the table and bringing babies to the boardroom. “My mom is still a working mom. My parents have always been working. I have fun stories when my parents would pass me off in the parking lot between daycares and then went on with their days. I’ve always grown up around that.”
It makes sense then that Cameron is dedicated to defining a new way to work. Her second child, a baby girl, was born earlier this year. In the first few days of her birth, Cameron posted a photo to Instagram of the two together, as she worked from the couch. Ten days later, she attended her first board meeting with baby in tow at YWCA Vancouver. Cameron wrote, “Grateful to my fellow board members for their carrying arms and easy accommodation. Grateful to live in a country where I get to make decisions about my body and the kind of maternity leave I’d like to have.”
As we talk, I’m curious how Cameron makes these environments work, mostly because it’s against the norm; Cameron is leading the way for women to choose - we talk about whether women can have it all and how to navigate these conversations with workplaces:
I couldn’t see myself in their positions, because I wasn’t a middle-aged white man.
YouInc: Why have you chosen to dedicate your work to women and youth?
Paulina Cameron: It’s something I’ve felt passionate about for years. The first time I got involved was in university; I co-founded an organization called Young Women in Business. I was in my third year of university in business school and I was attending a lot of events in the community - at that time maybe you’d find one female speaker. The people at the front didn’t reflect the people I like to hear stories from. I couldn’t see myself in their positions, because I wasn’t a middle-aged white man and I wasn’t going to be one [laughs]. We decided to run a conference. Three months later we hosted a 350-person, three-day conference. Every speaker was female, whether a CEO, executive, founder, or co-founder. The energy around it was incredible. We started the organization from there, and I’ve been working in the space since.
The youth piece for me is connected to entrepreneurship: what is our future like? What are the opportunities like? What is happening in the space?
YI: Congratulations on having your second child. What did you learn from your first pregnancy and becoming a working mother?
PC: I’ve always wanted to define what it would look like for me. I looked at the models or narratives that existed out there and they’re binary. The narratives you typically hear are about someone taking a year off. I live in Canada, so I acknowledge that it looks different than in the US. Here you mostly see women taking a year off from work and that didn’t quite suit me or my personality or my ambitions. Or the flip side of it being if you weren’t doing that, people would ask you a lot of questions and think it’s weird. I always wanted to integrate those pieces.
I viewed my career as an integrated part of my life, as opposed to segregated. For me it was important to design my work and my life in a way that carved out a new narrative and path and supported both my ambitions at home and at work. Being in a leadership role and knowing I’d be able to do that was helpful.
When I was promoted to regional director of western Canada, I was eight months pregnant with my first child. When I was five months pregnant with my second child, I got the CEO role at Forum for Women Entrepreneurs. I never hesitated with either roles, but I got questions, because it’s not as typical to see someone pregnant in leadership roles, especially coming into these roles new.
If I’m working with an organization that has the right values, the question has always been, “how are we going to do this?” It’s not whether we should do this. Then, I could have the conversation, “great, what do we need to make this successful for me? What do we need for the organization to make it successful? How do we make a structure around that, as opposed to saying it has to be exactly this way or that way?” You can make it how you choose or want for you.
YI: Did you have to lead that conversation when you were four or five months pregnant?
PC: It was both me and the board. The board knew right away. From the beginning the timelines were known and the conversation always explored, “if this keeps moving forward and this is a fit, then the next conversation we’re having is, 'how are we structuring this and what needs to be in place?'”
YI: Did you find it easy to integrate work and life? What are some of the things you’ve had to do?
PC: Either way is hard, because all the components are hard, right? New leadership roles are hard. Being a parent for the first, second, or fourth time is hard. You need to know yourself and what you need to make it happen. For me flexibility is key, so knowing that I could leave the office at 3 p.m. and step out with my kid, if needed. Other nights I’d work longer.
The second piece is my partner - he has the same flexibility and he’s an equal parent. I’ve never felt the burden that everything falls on my shoulders or I have to figure it out. In his current role he doesn’t travel as much, whereas I do. We have a colour-coded shared Google calendar and that was an obvious support. I never had to second guess whether he’d be able to handle being home with our kid. Our kid feels the same way about him as much as he does to me.
YI: Let’s talk about the idea whether women can “have it all.” What do you think?
PC: What does “all” look like, right? My first born came with me to a board meeting when he was six-weeks-old. It was challenging, but it was awesome. I felt comfortable that I could breastfeed in the room, that he could be there with me, and it was an environment where he was welcome and I was welcome to bring him.
It was the first time that board had anyone of child-bearing age, let alone bringing a child to the board meeting. It took a conversation where I said, “I’m a contributing board member, you value this, here’s how this needs to look.” And they were like, “okay, let’s try it.”
The onus still falls on the woman to initiate or bring that forward, because there hasn’t been enough examples. I get inspired by women - like women in the senate bringing other women into the senate - New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has done great things. We’re seeing more of those stories and narratives pop up. Everyone’s narrative looks different. I look at the way things have been done and say, “you know, that doesn’t quite work for me. This is what I want to create.” Then I find the right support system and structures to make it happen.
We should feel that when we’re at the table, there’s an abundance of opportunities for other women to join us.
YI: Let’s talk about the idea of women helping women rise. It’s easy to point the finger at men, but I’ve heard other women CEOs say women aren’t doing enough to bring women up with them. Have you experienced this situation?
PC: One of the most important things in my life are the women who support me and that I get to support. I’m surrounded and it’s amazing: everyone from mentors and champions to the girlfriends I text at 2 a.m.
I spend a lot of time making sure I’m doing the same for others and passing it forward. I’ve been rooted in that experience. However, I’ve seen what you’ve talked about. I find it sad and I understand where it comes from. I’ve observed it - I’ve seen that come up with a generation of women in specific industries, where women have felt they’ve had to elbow their way to the top or play the man’s role in order to get to the table. They’re then left with the feeling, “this is the work I had to do to get here and this is the shit I went through - you’re on your own because I feel threatened that if someone else comes up here my spot will be taken.”
We need to stop seeing this situation as “one woman is enough".
It’s a systemic problem, not a women’s problem that has led us to believe that there’s only one spot at the table for women. We shouldn’t think of it as a scarcity in that way, we should feel that when we’re at the table there’s an abundance of opportunities for other women to join us. We have tokenism that happens. Of course then you look around and think, “well, if another woman joins, I have to be gone,” as opposed to, “that’s so great, the table should get bigger to accommodate.” The culture, especially around the younger generation is shifting, from #MeToo to the Babe List. With millennial and Gen Z women rallying around each other, transformation will happen.
YI: How do we solve this problem? It’s not an overnight fix.
PC: We’re seeing women solve it, especially younger women. On the systemic piece front, I’m a proponent of quotas and diversity metrics. One thing is to remove tokenism, because as long as that’s still the mindset, there will always be a competitive, non-opening environment for women, who are currently in those roles. We need to stop seeing this situation as “one woman is enough and this has been ticked off,” and instead figure out systemic mechanisms for increasing the size of the table.
YI: Let’s talk about women being called “emotional” or “too ambitious.” Have you experienced these comments and how have you managed a response?
PC: I’ve heard them, been around them, and heard others comment. I’ll say this: I just don’t care. It’s more of a reflection of that person than me, and that’s true of a lot of feedback that’s given. I want more women to feel like they’re more comfortable and they can own it - they can say they’re ambitious or want to be CEO or whatever. The biggest opportunity we have once we're at the table is to bring other women around the table. Our role and responsibility is to ensure we’re bringing others along with us.
YI: If someone is trying to address a situation and the response is “you’re too emotional,” do you have a suggestion for how to respond?
PC: It’s hard to say without context. I like to hand responsibility back: my question would be, “why is that a problem for you? Am I being too emotional or are you uncomfortable with the conversation?” My approach is to try to bring it back to a place of neutrality, but also underline that being “too emotional” can also mean that someone doesn’t like what that person is saying and they’re in disagreement with you.
Well, I’d also ask, "would you ask a man the same question?" The qualities we say would make a woman emotional, often in men are contributed to good leadership. There could be conversation where you educate the person and showcase the distinction to them.
Our role and responsibility is to ensure we’re bringing others along with us.
YI: What do you wish you knew when you started out?
PC: We all have to figure things out while we go through them. I wish I felt more confidence knowing that it’s okay - I’ll be okay in figuring out my own path and way of doing things. I didn’t have to look at what's around me and follow a certain mold. I could carve and structure things I wanted to. I could have saved myself a lot of worry, doubt, and anxiety.
I talk to a lot of young women who debate whether to have families. A lot of consideration around the debate is because they look at models they see around them and can’t see themselves being happy with those models. If they can imagine a new path they can create for themselves, then suddenly those worries go away.
I don’t always have to have the answers right away and that it’s okay spending time figuring them out. Women aren’t given the benefit of the doubt a lot - we have to prove ourselves - whereas men are taken more at their potential. I’ve been hesitant to not know the right answer or have a solution or move forward, because I’ve understood that’s what is expected. I’ve seen tremendous power when you’re able to say, “well let me take that away and think about it.” Figuring out the way to do that lets me hold my power. I can be more thoughtful and not have to jump into something.
Then there’s a curse of knowledge when you know that you’re going to be treated with a different standard, you try to figure out how to perform to stand up to what is expected, versus taking a step backward and actually saying this doesn’t make any sense.