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We asked five CEOs what the holdup is and how to fix it

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Aurora DavidsonSabrina Smelko/The Globe and Mail

Aurora Davidson | Amerigo Resources

“The representation of women in mining leadership roles is still very low. I think we’ve had more progress in adding female directors to corporate boards than we have getting women to senior executive positions. A recent McKinsey study showed the mining sector is attracting women to entry-level roles but having trouble retaining and growing them. One of the reasons cited was a non-inclusive culture and a perceived lack of advancement for women. So, one takeaway is that we’re failing to promote women.

Of course, that doesn’t only apply to mining. The historical business leadership model is male-centric. Some studies show that leaders are not necessarily selected based on their potential, talent or competence; there’s a marked bias to hire for style over substance. Men tend to be more confident, aggressive and impulsive. Meanwhile, more common female leadership attributes—integrity, balance, competence—are quieter and don’t have the same dramatic impact. It may seem like a simplistic way of looking at it, but I think this bias has a serious effect on hiring practices. There’s also a strong perception bias for behaviour in men versus women. I’ve observed that trying to emulate male attributes doesn’t do women any good—they’re perceived as bossy, manipulative or self-centred. As women, trying to fit into a pre-established box of leadership qualities doesn’t do us any good.

I’ve always tried to conduct myself in a gender-neutral way. I’m not going to make my being a woman any part of the discussion. I’m focused on results and transparency—what are the objectives I am set to deliver on? My objective was not to portray myself as promotable but to do my job as effectively as possible. Granted, sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s about being the louder person in the room—because sometimes that’s what’s needed.

As for company policies, I have two recommendations. We implemented a version of the Rooney Rule, a policy initially instituted by the National Football League. We must interview at least one woman for every job opening. There is no hiring quota, but there has to be an interview quota. That forces you to reach out to a new pool of candidates, instead of relying on the buddy system, in which one buddy finds another buddy, and before you know it, it’s all buddies getting hired. Another recommendation, which I’m still working on how to implement at Amerigo, is for companies to have a structured sponsorship program. And there, you might have a bias where more women are sponsored to help equalize the playing field—at least at first.

Finally, I think the pandemic has had a brutal impact on female leadership. When everybody started working from home and families needed to decide who helped school the children—well, you can guess who took up that responsibility. Many women were forced to (at least temporarily) step down to assume additional responsibilities. On the other hand, I think the culture of working from home will be a significant driver in retaining women through their middle management stage and their progression to senior leadership. The commute to work, and being isolated from family for eight hours a day, is not something all women can do; in that sense, I think working from home will open more options for women.” /LA

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Samira SakhiaSabrina Smelko/The Globe and Mail

Samira Sakhia | Knight Therapeutics

“When it comes to character, I’m pretty tough. Maybe it has to do with being from an immigrant family: work hard, get it done and make sure you’re constantly trying harder than everyone else. Being a tough woman was part of who you had to be in the corporate world 25 years ago, and I won’t say I didn’t react to the times. On top of that, being a CFO made me an authority—I was the one signing off on things. But as a company president, I can’t get away with that alone. I’m dealing with different teams where I don’t have the expertise. It’s not just about pushing my way through, but pulling people to get there.

When it comes to diversity in the corporate world, I see positive evolution. Finally, the issue is getting the attention it deserves. People feel behind the times if they don’t have female leadership. Organizations that support diversity are becoming stronger and stronger. There’s more support from women for women, which is also helping. People are being asked: Why don’t you have more women in leadership? And the “we look for the best person for the job” answer isn’t sufficient anymore. At Knight, yes, we’re looking for the best person, but we also conscientiously aim for balance. As we were recruiting for the executive team, we would say, “This position—say, the VP of scientific affairs—is likely to be a guy, so let’s try to get a woman.” There’s no quota system, but it figures in.

My priority is diversity beyond gender. Our organization is doing quite well on gender in a lot of places, but we need to go a couple of levels deeper. Gender diversity helps in attracting talent, but the place we really need to work on is retention and development. Last year, we put diversity at the top of our list of values and behaviours. And that’s diversity in all aspects, whether it’s who you’re bringing in or in terms of customer focus, like realizing not all patients are the same. Being conscientious of diversity is part of everybody’s performance assessment. But how exactly do you evaluate diversity? That’s what we’re working on this year and next.

Whether you’re a woman or a person of colour, just because the world is evolving doesn’t mean it’s easy or fair. I see this all the time: There is a tendency for women to nuance their accomplishments. I always say, don’t nuance it. Sometimes, you made it happen. You can take credit without being arrogant and obnoxious. We are all trained to point to our teams and say we, but sometimes it’s okay to use I. It’s not wrong. You have to make sure you speak for your work.” /LA

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Brian PorterSabrina Smelko/The Globe and Mail

Brian Porter | Scotiabank

“We’re pleased with our progress, but we still have a ways to go. So, 42% of our vice-president and above positions are held by women. We’re proud of that. And if you go back to when I became CEO of the bank eight years ago, we were at 30%. I’d definitely like it to be higher. We have 35 million customers around the globe. Our workforce of 95,000 people has to look like our client base. So, we’ve taken a longer-term approach to developing our pipeline of women leaders, not just in Canada, but in Chile, Mexico, the Caribbean, the U.S., Europe—throughout our footprint. And our succession planning process has become far more rigorous. We have applied a lot more science to this, and it’s in all our leader scorecards. We talk about this at our operating committee, and it’s instilled in how we act and what we do every day.

On the diversity side, I’m on the board of Black-North, along with my colleague Mark Mulroney, and we view that initiative as really, really important. We’ve got work to do there, as well as in the Indigenous community. This isn’t something that’s just here for now. We’ve changed the way we think about people development and leadership throughout the organization. Tone at the top matters. When people understand that the board cares, that the CEO is really behind this, that amplifies its way through the organization. If you delegate it to a committee, you’re not going to get the same result. That’s a fact. I’ve had conversations with different business leaders, not just in Canada, on this topic. Some organizations get stymied or are concerned about their lack of progress. Culture change in a larger organization is a lot harder than in an organization with 50 people. You’ve got to change the way you run things and how you think, and others will follow. But you have to set targets and goals that are aspirational, and just keep plugging away at it. There’s no quick fixes, no silver bullets. It takes time. But you’ve got to set the tone at the top.” /RT

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Beena GoldenbergSabrina Smelko/The Globe and Mail

Beena Goldenberg | Organigram Holdings

“I’ve made my way through numerous male-dominated fields, from my start in chemical engineering in the ‘80s to the food and grocery industry, and now cannabis. Adapting to male-dominated industries means exercising confidence, decisiveness and the ability to speak out against things you don’t agree with. When you work predominantly with men, you have to express your opinions and not be talked over. Have confidence in what you’re bringing to the party; I learned that style early in my career. Over the years, it has evolved—I want to take the benefits of what I see as strengths in women’s leadership but do it successfully in male-dominated industries. I’m generalizing, but women tend to engage in more consensus-style leadership. And for the culture of an organization, women tend to set more achievable, as opposed to far-stretch, goals. And when you set achievable goals, people don’t stop trying to push beyond them. That feedback loop creates a more positive culture, less turnover and, ultimately, a more successful business outcome.

When it comes to diversity in leadership, there is change afoot, but of course it’s not happening fast enough. It’s far from a 50-50 world out there, and there’s diversity work to be done beyond gender parity. But I’m encouraged by the shift I see across big companies and different industries, even compared to where we were 10 years ago. I think there’s a generational difference driving the change—the impact of millennials having kids. In those families, more men are doing their fair share of raising children. You don’t have as many women dropping out of the workforce and having to catch up. It’s taking a long time, but I think we’ll see more and more women in senior leadership roles as a result.

In cannabis, we’re seeing more women work up into production roles and master grower roles, and they’ll be the leaders in the future. Policies that help us retain women and let them climb the ladder are important. Flex time is a big one, since it accommodates people at different stages in their lives. The other piece is about supporting growth and making sure we have training programs in place to move people along the leadership ladder.” /LA

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Kevin StrainSabrina Smelko/The Globe and Mail

Kevin Strain | Sun Life Financial

“I remember going to an award session many years ago, when I worked for a different insurance company. I sat beside a lady who was quite senior in the area, and it was her boss or her boss’s boss being recognized. I remember her saying to me, “I trained that guy, and I trained two or three people ahead of him. But I just never got the chance to break through.” That was impactful to me, because I remember thinking this person had everything. The way we work today, hopefully that never, ever happens. Parity is really important to me. We looked at a goal of 40% women, but to me that wasn’t strong enough. That’s why we changed the global goal to gender parity for VP and above by 2025. On our board, we’re roughly there, or very soon will be. In the executive team, we’re roughly at parity; in the next tier down, we’re at 35%. So, we have work to do. Part of my job is to keep pushing. If we want the best people working for us, why would 50% of the best people not be women? I just don’t accept that. Every time we’re replacing a senior role, we make sure we have a diverse slate. Having senior leaders that are women attracts more women, because they see the opportunity to progress.

We’re also trying to create teams that represent our communities, with gender and race diversity. I’ve had a lot of teams work for me, and the best ones were diverse; they accomplished the most, best understood their clientele and had better results. Why wouldn’t you want that?

Sun Life hasn’t had a global woman CEO yet, but we have 20 large business units, and a number of them are run by women. I can see no reason there shouldn’t be women in the running for CEO every time. And if we’re looking at the best person, half the time that should be a woman.” /SKR

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