The Next Chapter

Kirstine Stewart on women and leadership

Former CBC executive Kirstine Stewart discusses what holds women back in leadership roles, and what could help them move forward.
Kirstine Stewart says women often take over leadership roles during times of crisis and reorganization — a phenomenon known as the "glass cliff." (Random House Canada/CBC)

Women in the workplace are still often judged by appearance rather than achievement. Media executive Kirstine Stewart touches on her own experience of this in her book Our Turn. She was the first woman, and the youngest person, to head CBC's English-language programming. She left to become the managing of Twitter Canada. But she says she felt intense scrutiny at the CBC from day one, when she says members of the press commented on her hair and high heels, and some staff viewed her as "the queen of froth" because she came from lifestyle television. Her book sets out leadership strategies for women, filtered through her own successes and failures.

Kirstine Stewart came back to visit the CBC's Toronto studio to speak with Shelagh Rogers about women in leadership.

ON BEING JUDGED FOR HER FASHION SENSE

Particularly for women, it's not easy when we're put in that box where if we pay any attention to things like fashion, which is trivial, at least in the eyes of others. If we do, therefore, we're spending way too much time on things that are not important. It doesn't take me long to run to the store and grab a pair of great shoes. It was never something that occupied a lot of my time or imagination, and yet it seemed to be something that others were a bit obsessed with.

HOW TECHNOLOGY IS CHANGING THINGS FOR THE BETTER

I think we're moving past that point where image and people's obsession with putting others in a box rules the day. I think we're in a place now where technology strips people down to their skills, and what they can do and how effective they are. It gives us a chance to shine and to be different. We don't have to conform to what leaders and bosses looked like in the past. 

ON FINDING YOUR PASSION IN AN UNLIKELY PLACE

I have a degree in criticism and theory of English literature. Right out of college, I thought I wanted to go into publishing, but I was just desperate to get a job. I found a listing for a "Girl Friday" position in television. In the end, it was the perfect job! I got learn the business from the ground up. A few months in, I was offered a position in sales at that same company, selling television shows around the world. This was a new world for me, a world that I loved, a world I didn't know existed. A world that wasn't in my plan when I was getting my degree in English literature. 

A NEW TAKE ON TRADITIONAL ADVICE

You hear a lot of advice about following your passion. And I don't think that's something to ignore — you do need to feel like you're invested in what you're doing, and be curious and always learning. But I do think it's better not to subscribe to a really specific plan. We live in a world that's so fast-paced, and opportunities open up all the time. To tie yourself to one goal, plan or dream shuts out opportunities you could branch out into. It's not so much a career ladder now as it is a climbing gym. You need to be able to grasp that rail when you're ready.

Kirstine Stewart's comments have been edited and condensed.

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