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Jay-Ann Gilfoy is chief executive officer of credit union Meridian.

As the sole woman on a senior executive team, I needed an ally. Juggling the incessant demands of two children under six and a big job, I watched other colleagues appear unworried about kids. They had help in the form of a spouse who stayed home, but I was part of a career couple who lived away from family and had to rely on daycare to cover things off.

My boss had no inkling of my situation. I was afraid to share my challenges, fearing I’d look weak. He’d call meetings for 5 p.m. when I had to retrieve the kids from daycare. I couldn’t leave and hid that I had child-care issues.

So when a second woman joined the executive ranks, I was encouraged. I told her I was thrilled she’d be in the trenches alongside me, someone who would understand.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “My husband looks after all of that.”

Oh no, I thought. It was a learning moment for me: Back then, some women still worked with elbows out instead of building allies to change the system.

That lesson still influences how I lead teams to this day. At Meridian, we’re combining steadfast values with a flexible, evolving approach to better support women (and men) to set them up for continuing, growing success.

Role models matter: In 2023, still only 5 per cent of chief executives and 7 per cent of board chairs are women, according to the Canadian Securities Administrators. That makes me a role model. My priority is to create conditions to help women pierce the glass ceiling and know that it’s okay to ask for help. I know I thrived under leaders who had empathy and created a safe place to share challenges.

Becoming a vice-president at 38, I came up through HR and thought I had to show strength, not emotions. I was startled to learn that behind my back they called me “ice queen.” Forget whether a man would be called similar, I immediately decided I’d rather be true to myself and work to be a leader who creates the environment for people to bring their whole self to work, someone people wanted to work for. A magnet for talent.

Give people flex: Here’s how to be a magnet. Let staff have flexibility, provided they do the job. I feel this deeply. My first marriage ended in part because of inflexibility at work. Recent data support flexibility, too. A new study from Werklabs, the research division of the digital talent marketplace The Mom Project, reports that with flexible hours, employees scored 28-per-cent higher on retention and 20-per-cent higher on anticipated productivity.

Choose to speak up: Then there’s the recurring obstacle women encounter at work: not getting credit for ideas. I monitor this. I tell women they have a choice to speak up when it occurs. One of the practices I try to have is to let all others in a meeting speak before I do. This helps to enable all voices to be heard.

This isn’t just about being nice or doing the right thing. It’s crucial. There are labour shortages. Treating people well creates loyalty. They’re our strategic asset, and a big percentage are women. How can I not be an ally?

And the evidence is there. The journal, Canadian HR Reporter, says women are leaving the work force in higher numbers. Bain & Co. reports women feeling excluded are three times more likely to quit. Conversely, women feeling included are 11 times more likely to act as “promoters” of their company. At PWC, 90 per cent of those in the Women in Leadership program stayed at the firm.

Allow for risk: As they build careers, women should be encouraged to take risks and apply for jobs they don’t feel qualified to assume. I was there. I once lacked confidence – a late bloomer in that department. Conversely, men frequently “go for it” and apply, without checking every qualifying box. Women should, too.

And as a leader, if you promote women, help them succeed. Equally, your male employees need to know that promoting women doesn’t mean threatening men. Eradicating gender bias requires focus on all genders. Support for all is crucial to breaking the cycle.

Pay fairly: Pay equity also needs attention. A female vice-president should be compensated on par with a male vice-president. And when women receive a job offer, I advise them to negotiate firmly. It’s confidence again. No ask, no get.

Helping others advance is not only good for them, but for the organization, and selfishly speaking, for me. Strong leaders surround themselves with the best people. We CEOs don’t succeed on our own.

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Aim for balance: And yes, representation matters, as does tone from the top. Our board has a 50-50 gender balance, while our executive team is close. If a young woman sees me as CEO (Meridian’s first woman in the role), she can envision a different career track. This can change a person’s life. Someone new gets to participate and then might help someone else. So be a leader who’s an ally.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.