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Q&A: Keynote Speaker Denise Donlon Wants You to Find Your Power

Denise Donlon sits on a window ledge.

Back in 1985, when MuchMusic asked a young music promoter named Denise Donlon to jump on board as a host and producer, she grappled with serious self-doubt.

“The last thing I’d ever imagined was seeing myself on television,” she wrote in her memoir, Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances).

“TV personalities were perfectly groomed, self-possessed, supernatural beings with glossy hair, gleaming teeth, and big heads on top of tiny bodies. By contrast, I was an inch over six feet tall, with a slight lisp, a gap in my front teeth, and shaky self-confidence.”

And yet, she successfully navigated from that role to Vice President and General Manager of MuchMusic/MuchMoreMusic. Donlon later became the first female President of Sony Music Canada, and then went on to work as General Manager of CBC English Radio.

How did she continue to ascend and inspire in male-dominated arenas? As keynote speaker for the Canadian Women’s Foundation’s The Exchange on Oct. 25 in Calgary, Donlon is looking forward to sharing some lessons learned over her 40-year career.

“I will be talking about finding your power,” Donlon says. “I’ll tell a few tall tales and hopefully attendees will leave feeling empowered to lead with vision, courage, and humour.”

Keep reading for a preview of Donlon’s wit and wisdom, and join us at The Exchange in Calgary!

You’ve held many leadership roles and have joked about often feeling like the rookie or “making it up as you went along.” What advice would you give another woman who is feeling a sense of imposter syndrome?

Denise Donlon: Know that you’re not alone. Even the most successful and admired women, from Tina Fey to Jodie Foster to Maya Angelou, admit to having imposter syndrome. For me, my imposter syndrome demon has been the biggest impediment when it comes to taking risks. It’s that little voice that whispers, “You’re going to fail!”

My strategy has been to try to bury him with busy-ness, but I’ve also come to appreciate that his nagging helps me anticipate what could go wrong and be super prepared if they do. My advice to other women is to keep in mind that we are more capable and powerful than we think, and we can beat that little demon.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg cites an internal study done by Hewlett-Packard, which found that men apply for a job when they feel they meet 60 per cent of the job requirements, whereas women apply only if they feel they meet 100 per cent. That’s something we can change right now by just going for it!

Even if you don’t get the gig, the interview experience is valuable and you’ve signaled to the powers that be that you’re ready for new challenges. That’s never a bad thing.

You commented in a recent interview that the representation of women in music videos hasn’t changed a lot since you worked at MuchMusic 30 years ago. Do you think the representation of women in media/pop culture has improved in other ways?

Denise Donlon: The representation of women in media has certainly been improved with the help of strong female role models like Ellen DeGeneres, producers like Shonda Rhimes, and editors like Jill Abramson, formerly of the New York Times.

The music industry doesn’t seem to have made the same strides — perhaps because it’s been in a state of recovery for almost two decades — and the same tired, objectified, “sex sells” representations of women persist.

We’ve still got a long way to go in media, business and politics. The number of women CEOs in North America is at an all-time high, yet is still only 6.4 per cent. It’s a market fail.

I applaud the women who do make it to the corner office — they are the best of the best. But the challenge is to resist emulating our male counterparts and to let our authenticity and humanity shine through. Watching someone like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, lead with strength, integrity, and compassion has been inspirational in these troubled times.

You’ve been recognized for your humanitarian work, for raising awareness, and for rallying people behind social causes. What are your thoughts about engaging more people to become active in the gender equality movement?

Denise Donlon: Simply that we must move the dial — if not for ourselves, then for our sons and daughters. It seems a lot to ask of women, given how much we do already, but feminism still has a long way to go, baby.

At this year’s JUNO Awards Gala, you challenged the men in the room to stand up and pledge to champion women in the music industry. What other concrete steps do you think men can take to demonstrate their support for gender equality?

Denise Donlon: That was a fun moment, seeing about 1,000 men pledging to be allies to women. I heard from so many women the next day saying, “That was amazing, you made me cry.”

I also heard from some men who said, “And so I stood up and then I got really nervous. I wondered, ‘What else is she going to make me do?’ ” Ha! Nothing, I told them, just honour your commitment. Support women, mentor women, promote women, and commit to gender equality in your businesses and guess what: we all win.

There’s a mountain of evidence that says that gender equality is a game changer for businesses — that it can accelerate innovation, increase the bottom line, and enhance brand equity. A recent McKinsey report  says that gender balance could bring an extra $150 billion to Canada’s economy. We all benefit when we have equal opportunity.

In your book, you wrote about having experienced sexual assault. Are you encouraged by the impact of the #MeToo Movement in Canada? What do you think is a top priority when it comes to addressing the issue of sexual assault?

Denise Donlon: I think it’s important that women don’t get weary. There are many priorities and much work to be done.

It was the Ghomeshi case that brought my sexual assault forward. I had submerged the memory of it for over 45 years, but suddenly it was time to tell the story of what happened to me when I was a 14-year-old girl.

Because I had worked with Ghomeshi at CBC I was being asked about what I knew, so I sent a note to family and friends that included the story of my own assault and I was overwhelmed by the responses. So many women friends, some of whom I’d known for many years, shared their own stories.

We have to do a better job in our justice systems — from our police officers all the way to the bench — so that women will be treated with respect when they have the courage to come forward. We have to have stronger, more effective sexual harassment policies in the workplace.

We have to listen, to support one another, and to continue to speak up against injustice against anyone wherever we see it. I hope the #MeToo Movement heightens our vigilance, deepens our compassion, and encourages us to engage for a long time to come.

What’s next on Denise Donlon’s to-do list? Are there goals you’re still pursuing?

Denise Donlon: Right now, I’m on a number of non-profit boards, which keeps me hopping. I’m not in a big rush as I go into my third act, but whatever the next career adventure is, I want to be sure that it will leave a positive footprint in this beautiful, chaotic, and sometimes ugly world.

Let’s say you’re making a feminist playlist. What are some songs that would be on it?

Denise Donlon: Now there’s a fun exercise! Dixie Chicks: Not Ready to Make Nice, Aretha Franklin: Respect, Patti Smith: People Have the Power, Eurythmics: Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves, and Parachute Club: Rise Up!

To hear Denise Donlon in person, join us at The Exchange: Conversations to Inspire Change, in Calgary on October 25, 2018.

If you’re in the Toronto area, join us to hear keynote speaker Anita Hill at The Exchange: Conversations to Inspire Change, in Toronto on December 3, 2018.


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