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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Female leadership embraced at summit

During the Niagara Leadership Summit for Women, a panel discussion was held featuring local female leaders, from left, Allie Hughes, owner of Hughes & Co.; Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of Grape Growers of Ontario and former regional chair; Mishka Balsom, CEO of Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce; and Tami Jeanneret, 105.7 EZ Rock news anchor and Niagara College instructor. The panel was held on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015, in St. Catharines, Ont. Maryanne Firth, St. Catharines Standard

Riley Roberts listened intently.

When the panel of local women leaders finished their discussion about supporting one another in the community, she felt inspired.

“If you can put your mind to it, you can do anything,” the 14-year-old Blessed Trinity Catholic Secondary School student said.

“And women leaders are equal to men leaders,” she said, despite what society may at times have people think.

It was the message that resonated with the teen at the second annual Niagara Leadership Summit for Women, hosted by YWCA Niagara Region Saturday at Brock University.

About 250 people attended the daylong event, which included a series of speakers, presentations and workshops, covering a variety of topics such as female leadership in politics and activism, indigenous leadership, breaking barriers for young women and entrepreneurship.

A panel discussion was held featuring local female leaders Mishka Balsom, CEO of Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce; Allie Hughes, owner of Hughes & Co.; Tami Jeanneret, 105.7 EZ Rock news anchor and Niagara College instructor; and Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of Grape Growers of Ontario and former regional chair.

Moderator Ruth Unrau began by presenting the crowd with some staggering figures about women in leadership roles.

Females have 26 per cent representation in the House of Commons and 13 per cent representation at Niagara Regional council, she said. While women make up 48% of the total labour force, only 5% of top jobs are held by females, she added.

Zimmerman thinks education will be key in seeing those numbers rise in the future.

“I think it’s going to take another generation of women saying ‘Enough is enough,’” she told the crowd.

“You have to push back. It’s going to take a generation pushing back to make those changes.”

Jeanneret believes “every generation builds on the generation before them” and that women have “made incredible strides” over time.

She spoke about the shift she has seen in the broadcasting industry, with more management roles being filled by females.

To encourage that trend to continue on a wider scale, women need to begin having more open dialogues with youths, she said.

It’s a matter of recognizing that struggles exist and explaining to the next generation of female leaders that “it’s not an easy journey, but you can be successful.”

Event chair Julie Rorison was inspired to bring the summit to Niagara after participating in a similar experience in Hamilton.

“I wanted to bring that energy to people in my own community and keep spreading the love,” she said.

There are many ways women lead locally, Rorison said, whether it be raising a family, running a business or helping with various community groups. But, she said, many of those efforts go unrecognized by society.

The summit is meant to get discussions going about ways women lead, barriers they face and how people, regardless of gender, can support one another on the path to success, Rorison said.

She believes recognizing the various leadership skills and passions that people bring to the table is what will “push Niagara far.”

In many respects, women do not have equal representation in positions of power, but the first step to rectifying that issue is to talk about it openly, said YWCA executive director Elisabeth Zimmermann.

“When we have those conversations, that change can happen.”

Zimmermann wanted summit attendees to walk away with “a better sense of who they are and how they are already leaders in the community.”

For the men in the audience, she hoped they would “continue to be advocates for equity” and help the message to reach a broader audience.

Jeff Sinclair was among the handful of men who joined the mainly-female crowd Saturday.

It’s the second year he has attended the summit in an effort to support diversity in leadership.

To further encourage that diversity in the future, the community engagement co-ordinator at Niagara College believes involvement needs to begin at a young age.

The college, Sinclair said, has a leadership program that staff have worked hard to ensure is inclusive.

“We need to start training that diverse set of leaders.”

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