When it comes to women in leadership, sometimes it feels like for every step forward we take, we take two steps back.
In April 2021, Rania Llewellyn appeared on the cover of our Women Lead Here issue with the line: “Underestimate me. That’ll be fun”—the words emblazoned on the sweatshirt she wore for her interview with reporter Joanna Pachner. Half a year earlier, after two decades climbing the ladder at Scotiabank, Llewellyn was appointed CEO of Laurentian Bank, making her the first woman to run a Canadian-owned bank. Laurentian, she told Pachner, was at a “critical juncture” in its 175-year history, losing market share and woefully behind technologically.
Llewellyn was handed the CEO role after the board gave her predecessor two weeks’ notice. “In a sector characterized by orderly leadership transitions,” Pachner wrote, “that’s almost equivalent to being marched out the door by security.”
That line is particularly striking now, given what happened to Llewellyn in early October. In the midst of her three-year turnaround plan, the board put the bank up for sale but failed to find a buyer. Then there was a five-day service outage that enraged customers. Pretty much no one expected Llewellyn to be chucked. But almost exactly three years after taking over, the board announced she was being replaced immediately by Éric Provost—who admitted he’d only been approached about the CEO gig the previous night.
Was Laurentian a mess? Absolutely. “But here’s an equally fair question: Does Ms. Llewellyn deserve to be out of a job?” That’s the question posed by ROB’s Tim Kiladze following her ouster. “Countless male CEOs have dealt with similar blows, if not worse, and they don’t leave like this. If anything, they might stick around, then get heralded for their resilience.”
As Kiladze pointed out, Llewellyn faced a classic glass-cliff scenario: Women “are more likely to get hired when organizations are in trouble or at risk, and are therefore thrust into a risky and precarious position.” In other words, they’re set up to fail—and given none of the grace afforded to male execs.
And so Canada bid farewell to yet another high-profile female leader. Llewellyn isn’t the only one we’ve lost this year—which brings us to our CEO of the Year issue. In 2022, three of our five honourees—including overall winner Barbara Zvan, who runs the climate-forward University Pension Plan—were women. Alas, two of those CEOs are now gone. Sophie Brochu left Hydro-Québec in April after less than three years, in part over disagreements with Quebec Premier François Legault’s energy policy. And in August, Ann Fandozzi of RB Auctions was abruptly replaced after the company claimed she’d resigned over a compensation dispute. Fandozzi, well, disputed that.
These losses feel all the more brutal given how few female CEOs we have in Canada. Just 5% of our publicly traded companies have a woman at the helm. So it’s not much of a surprise that four out of five of our 2023 CEOs of the Year are men.
Don’t get me wrong: We’ve put together an outstanding list of winners, including Tracy Robinson, whose appearance here has nothing to do with her gender and everything to do with the fact that she’s killing it at troubled CN Rail. But next year, I’d sure love to have more women at the top of Canada’s largest corporations to choose from.
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