Maureen Sabia is on a diet of protein and strict self-discipline.
The first of these, an eating regimen that consists mainly of meat and fish, has allowed her to shed 10 pounds in six weeks. The second – the self-discipline – is a lifelong habit. Ms. Sabia preaches and practises a life of extreme structure, self-restraint and hard work, propelling her to the head of the boardroom table at Canadian Tire, one of the country’s most iconic retail chains. In the process, she has become one of just a handful of women to hold such a position at a major Canadian public company.
Ms. Sabia has no concept of work-life balance. She never got married, though she was engaged once and broke it off. She never wanted children. She doesn’t take holidays.
Her obsession with hard work and getting ahead wasn’t compatible with finding a life partner, but it helped her land jobs at established organizations and seats on prestigious boards. That intensity began early in her career, playing a part in getting her through law school in the 1960s as one of just three women among 300 at the University of Toronto.
But even as she smashes through glass ceilings in an array of male-dominated domains, she stubbornly holds on to contrarian views. Case in point: She refuses to be addressed by the gender-neutral title of “chairperson” or “chair,” insisting instead on being called “chairman.”
“It’s an office of the corporation,” says Ms. Sabia, as she winds down during a catered buffet of baked salmon and salads in a Canadian Tire boardroom. It’s just a few doors away from her more expansive top-floor office, which has a flawless south-facing view of the city.
“If we had a female CEO we wouldn’t call her ‘president-ess.’ I object to ‘chairperson’ and ‘chair.’ I’m not a piece of furniture … I’m a traditionalist.”
Clad in a silk and linen Donna Karan suit, the 70-year-old looks trim and proper as she savours the quinoa and bulgur salad with mixed vegetables. But she’s a study in paradoxes: Ms. Sabia is a modern woman with an all-consuming work life (she sits on a number of government and other advisory bodies), but reverts to an earlier day for important events, slipping on long kid gloves and one of her dozens of hats. She sports an elegant double-strand of pearls, but also a pair of pointy-toed Prada stilettos adorned with a splash of a Picasso print.
Influenced by her late mother, Laura Sabia, a high-profile feminist, and her surgeon father, Michael, she comes from a high-achieving, close-knit family that had lofty expectations of her and her three siblings. She swaps advice with brother Michael, who is chief executive officer of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, the province’s pension fund manager.
In June, Ms. Sabia was named to the Order of Canada for supporting the advancement of women in business and bolstering corporate governance. It runs in the family – her mother got the honour in 1974. Despite being raised in an environment that championed women, the younger Sabia was still exposed to sexist attitudes over the years. Even in applying to Harvard law school, she recalls, an assistant dean of admissions told her he didn’t think he could give her “a place that belonged to a man because I didn’t look like I’d ever have to earn my own living.”
Yet Ms. Sabia opposes quotas for women and says her mother was also “horrified” by such forced equality. She prefers Margaret Thatcher’s brand of can-do feminism. At her board table, only two of the 16 Canadian Tire directors are women – she and her friend and confidante, Martha Billes, who is controlling shareholder of the company and daughter of one of its founding brothers. In an odd twist, Ms. Sabia got her own seat on the board in 1985 after Ms. Billes specifically looked for women in a bid to assert herself in a male corporate bastion.