Who Erased Claudia Hepburn?

Sadly, what happened to Hepburn in this instance is not unusual. Women’s contributions are all too often “accidently” erased from history.

Whether it’s the elimination of First Nations from our national history, the denial of women in our founding history or the exclusion of one woman in the recent history of The Next 36, it all amounts to the same thing—a falsehood. Achievements denied, contributions ignored, people rendered invisible.“____

I first met the tall, slender and ginger-haired fire-starter Claudia Hepburn in 2013. She had just finished speaking about transformational education and innovation at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and was working the room. Hepburn, co-founder and director of Canada’s high-profile business leadership and entrepreneurship program The Next 36, was doing what she loved to do—educate, support and advance our youth.

Hepburn energetically led The Next 36’s growth and development for over five years. Yet last week, the press release announcing the program’s new name and incoming CEO, took the time to pay respects to the work of its visionary founders—naming all except Claudia Hepburn.

Thinking I missed something, I read it again. But nope, still no single mention of Claudia Hepburn as co-founder or the fact that she led its development to this point for five years.

Huh?

An oversight? Maybe. But perhaps it is not one that should come as a surprise. At the newly rebranded The Next 36 (now Next Canada), men still make up six out of seven of its founders, 13 of its 14 board members, 13 of its 14 faculty members, and 19 of its 22 mentors. In the 2015 annual report, you will find only one of its 15 guest speakers were women. In an environment where you hardly ever see women, I suppose it is easy to forget they exist at all.

Sadly, what happened to Hepburn in this instance is not unusual. Women’s contributions are all too often “accidently” erased from history.

What is Erasure?

New York Times article printed earlier this year explains that erasure is “the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible.”

Identity erasure is practiced whenever people are eliminated from history. Today, we increasingly recognize how much of the history we’ve been taught is partial because it fails to capture the contributions and participation of those who are not the storytellers. Whether it’s the elimination of First Nations from our national history, the denial of women in our founding history or the exclusion of one woman in the recent history of The Next 36, it all amounts to the same thing—a falsehood. Achievements denied, contributions ignored, people rendered invisible.

The concept of erasure is not new to most women. Just look at your kid’s textbook. Women’s contributions—either on their own or in partnership with men—in science, art, law, medicine, technology and a host of other realms are simply left out.

Unfortunately, erasure is still common practice today. It works at the same quick speed as the Internet. Here today. Gone tomorrow. For example, you have probably never heard of Whitney Wolfe, even though she was one of Tinder’s co-founders. In 2014, she took Tinder to court for equity and lost compensation as well as to put her name back in the books. Today, you will find no mention of her in Tinder’s history. There are many other similar stories about women co-founders who spoke their truth, and were subsequently erased from the picture. Apparently, if you make too much noise, erasure is additionally justified.

Back to The Next 36/Next Canada

If I were Claudia, I would rake these guys over the coals for leaving her out and force them to publish a correction. To make sure it doesn’t happen again. But then again, I’m not sure anyone would listen.

In July, LiisBeth highlighted gender imbalance at The Next 36. Following the article, I spoke with The Next 36 co-chairs John Kelleher (also a partner at McKinsey) and Tony Lacavera, plus Peter Carrescia, Managing Director, at their request. Carrescia explained, with feeling, how difficult it is for them to find qualified women who fit their bill. “It’s really a pipeline issue,” said Carrescia.

Just prior to our call, The Next 36 filled two board vacancies with men. But there would be other openings in the future. Hopeful, and trying to be helpful, we encouraged them to re-assess their criteria, try a little imagination, and referred them to several accomplished women who had the kind of networks that could help them with their pipeline issues.

In September, they brought on a male CEO, whom I hate to say, looks and talks a lot like them.

A former program participant (who preferred to stay anonymous for fear of repercussions) told us, “It’s really just about rich men over 40 gathering to create a world in their image by creating path replicative opportunities for youth, that just happen to align our financial interests with their success.”

From what I’ve learned so far, that about sums it up.

Sometimes it’s best if organizations just come clean, say what they really are, and don’t pretend otherwise. The Next 36 leadership could refrain from pretending it believes equality is good for business and important to educating young leaders, and the rest of us could focus on directing tomorrow’s talent to programs run by people that do.

Petra Kassun Mutch

(This article was originally published in the LiisBeth Magazine subscriber newsletter on September 12, 2016. Many readers expressed outrage and requested that we republish this piece more broadly–so we did!

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