On the evening of Oct. 18, 2011, exactly 82 years after the Supreme Court ruled that women were indeed persons, a flock of corporate elite descended on Toronto’s Fairmont Hotel to celebrate the progress women have made, and investigate the work still to be done.
The event, called Catalyst Canada Honours, is run by Catalyst—a nonprofit organization that is focused on expanding opportunities for women in business—and the group has been researching woman at work since its inception in 1962. The organization’s studies show that the number of women in Canada who hold senior officer positions in the corporate sector increased just 4% between 2002 and 2010. It now sits at around 18%. Clearly, there’s still room for improvement, and the evening’s fundraiser brought in close to $1 million in funds for research and other initiatives.
If the night had a specific theme, it was that women in business don’t just need mentors and coaches, they need sponsors to be their advocates behind the scenes and champions in their workplace that set an example of their company’s attitudes toward the empowerment of women.
There were three big winners, or “champions,” of the evening. The first to speak was Human Resources/Diversity Leader award winner Michael Bach, who created his role as director of diversity, equity and inclusion at KPMG. He spoke about his privilege of being born both Caucasian and male, but his experience growing up as a gay man had been an “invisible disability” that challenged him to look for ways that he could help others achieve their own career success, even if that meant being unpopular sometimes. “I like to think that if I’ve pissed someone off, I’m doing something right,” he joked. At the end of his speech he challenged the audience to contemplate boldness, and take bold action when they witnessed opportunity to improve the diversity and equality at their own companies.
The other two award winners were women who are reshaping their organizations to foster its internal female talent. Jennifer Tory, a regional president in Greater Toronto Region with RBC, won the 2011 Business Leader Champion award for her efforts to advance women and visible minorities, both in the bank and her community. She’s a member of RBC’s Diversity Leadership Council, which allows her to significantly influence and impact the bank’s diversity agenda, plans, and goals.
The big winner of the night was Monique F. Leroux, chair of the board, president and CEO at Desjardins Group. Leroux’s list of accomplishments is impressive—she’s the first woman elected chair and the first one to hold the title of president and CEO at her company. She also one of the only female leaders of a top Canadian financial institution. Leroux overhauled the whole organizational structure at Desjardins so that, for example, females would make up at least 30% of the talent pool at all levels of the company—from executive to branch. She’s also a passionate mentor and sponsor of other women, and attributes her own success to her first mentor—her mother.
In the same way that Bach spoke of his mother as a strong female influence in his life, and Tory credited her success in part to her fathers insistence that she could do whatever she wanted to, Leroux also praised her parents for their guidance. “My father and my mother didn’t believe that because I was a woman I should set my sights lower,” she said. “[My mother] didn’t believe you should sit back and wait for someone who could do the job. We need to get the job done. And that’s still good advice for all of us today.”
If the leaders in attendance are any indication of future focus on the promotion of women to leadership spots, then there’s plenty to be optimistic about. CEOs and leaders from Bell, Talisman Energy and Shell Canada were in attendance as well as the heads of CIBC, RBC, Scotiabank, TD, BMO and HSBC Bank of Canada, prompting Tory to joke in her acceptance speech that she as wary of an erupting “battle of the banks.”
The mood was jovial but with a firm undertone: There’s still a lot of work to be done. But, as Laroux points out, “we could wait for more women to rise to the executive suites, but for me and so many others in this room, ‘wait and see’ is not an option.”