Celebrating International Women's Day: A Conversation with Shannon Doram

IWD_Shannon Blog

In honour of International Women’s Day, we had a conversation with our President and CEO, Shannon Doram. Shannon is an accomplished leader who is passionate about healthy communities and healthy people. She has been the CEO of YMCA Calgary since 2017 and has dedicated her career to empowering individuals and communities through inclusive and equitable practices. 

In this Q&A session, we explore Shannon's thoughts on this year’s theme, #EmbraceEquity, the challenges and opportunities for women in leadership positions, and the role of organizations like YMCA Calgary in promoting gender equality. We will also discuss Shannon's own experiences as a leader, the mentors who have inspired her, and the advice she would offer to young women aspiring to leadership roles.

We hope that this conversation will inspire and empower readers to take action towards gender equality in their own communities and workplaces. So, let's dive in!


Q - This year’s theme is #EmbraceEquity. What does this mean to you? 

A - I think it starts with acknowledging that not everybody comes from the same starting line in their journey, and that could be for a variety of reasons. It could be their access to resources. It could be their level of education. It could be their level of income, or it could be the country they were born in. 

The metaphor I use to think about equity is a long-distance race on a running track. Runners in the outside lanes start farther up the track to account for the varying distances around the track from each lane. The running track is a great way to metaphorically picture equity, as it can make us think, “how do we create the equal starting points, knowing the journey is not the same for everyone?”

There are a few ways we do this at YMCA Calgary. An important one for us as a charity, is removing financial barriers for people who don't have the ability to participate equally otherwise. In addition to financial equity, I believe we’ve also done a good job making sure gender equity is reflected in our workforce. We strive to make sure that women, and all gender identities have equal opportunities.

The third way we embrace equity is through access to opportunities and growth. This comes in all shapes and sizes. It could mean that somebody needs a little more encouragement to take on a new role, or they need a little extra support from a supervisor to be successful.

So, to me, equity means getting everyone to that varied, yet equitable starting point. Just like the start of a long-distanced running race.


Q- When you think about women that have inspired you over the years, who comes to mind?

A - My mom is my absolute hero. I admire her spirit, her kindness, and her ability to turn anyone into an instant-friend. As a kid, I had access to so many different opportunities and was encouraged to try it all. I was never held back from being on a sport team or involved in music, even though that came at a personal cost for my parents. I’m who I am thanks to them, and thanks to everything they made possible for me.

There have also been a lot of women professionally who have opened doors for me; who saw potential in me and gave me a chance. They knew I'd have to reach, but they supported me anyway, and these women continue to be some of the most important champions in my life.

And I know you didn’t ask this, but there have also been a lot of men in my life who have moved barriers and made things possible for me. I think it's important to acknowledge that in order for women to succeed, we need 360 support - and a lot of that comes from our male counterparts. My husband is one. He's been supporting me for more than 20 years in all the ambitious things that I do. There's a also several men in my professional life that have done the same, including encouraging me to apply for the role I have today and to take leadership roles on Boards. I’m not sure I would have stepped into those opportunities if I didn't feel their support to succeed.


Q - What are challenges you have had to overcome as a female leader? How were you able to address/overcome them? 

A - One of the challenges I have faced periodically in my leadership journey is my age. I've had the privilege of being in significant leadership positions very young in my career, and I feel that can be incrementally harder when you are female. 

As a result of this, I’ve certainly felt pressure to perform. It’s caused me to work hard to compensate for gaps, whether real or perceived. I think self-doubt is a challenge a lot of women face for various reasons, and especially in pursuing senior leadership roles. I think we’re prone to second-guessing our capabilities, perhaps limiting the opportunities we explore.

In a way this has been a gift for me, causing me to challenge myself and realize where my potential really is. In retrospect, I wouldn't have changed anything. In fact, it gave me fuel to prove that I was capable, no matter my age or gender. And I’ve had a lot of incredible women cheering me on.


Q - What is a piece of encouragement you wish you could give your younger self?

A - I would say don't be afraid to do things that are hard; and do them as your authentic self. I think this is important because the things that scare us, are often the things that make us grow. They make us who we are, if we allow our full selves to experience the journey.

I learned early in my career that you’ll be wasting precious energy if you don’t show up as your authentic self. This has always been a cornerstone for me - to show up with my values and integrity intact. Being true to who I am has served me well in my career, and I believe, has also enabled others to do the same. There is nothing better as a leader, than seeing people succeeding as exactly who they are. 


Q - It is important to empower women, not only today, but every day. What are some actions allies can take to advocate for equity?  

A - I think the first thing that comes to mind for me is to cheer women on. Our society often rewards a competitive mindset, but I think the more that we can champion each other as women, the better.

Another way to be a strong ally is to support women with opportunities; to give them something to stretch for, something to feel fulfilled by.

Lastly, in the context of our organization, I'm always watching, learning, and trying to connect the dots between signals that might mean something. That could be a subtle comment a co-worker makes about a job they aspire to, something they’d like to learn, or where they where may need a little extra help. If we keep our eyes and ears open and be mindful of the needs of others, we'll get so much further, together.