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Part 1: Why the executive suite is the final frontier for women Add to ...

The largest Canadian-owned company with a female boss is Desjardins Group, which appointed Monique Leroux as chair and chief executive officer in 2008. Ms. Leroux got to the top through a uniquely democratic selection process. Unlike most companies who hand the job of hiring a CEO to clubby, male-dominated boards of directors, leadership candidates at Montreal-based Desjardins are elected by its 480 member caisses populaires.

Ms. Leroux, a mother and an accountant who rose through the ranks at Ernst & Young and Royal Bank of Canada, won a majority of votes against several candidates. "I think that if there would have been typical nomination with a board . . . I'm not sure that I would have been nominated," she says.

Other female business chiefs attribute their success to progressive employers at crown or foreign companies that are either more proactive about promoting women or view female leaders as promising catalysts for change.

When Anglo American's board went looking in 2007 for a new CEO to improve results and an abysmal safety record, it chose Cynthia Carroll, a low-profile mining executive with 18 years of experience at Montreal-based Alcan Inc. Investors and mining analysts were so stunned by the appointment of such an unknown talent that Anglo's stock plunged by 30 per cent and experts warned the new boss would not last.

Three years later, Ms. Carroll has restructured the company's debt, overhauled accident- prone mines and rebuffed a hostile takeover bid. The mother of four is ranked by several media organizations as the world's most powerful female.

Other global giants are swooping in to hire Canadian women to run their head offices or Canadian subsidiaries. Some of the world's largest resources companies, including Rio Tinto and Shell Canada, recently promoted Canadian executives to run their Canadian units. They preside over divisions with estimated annual revenues of more than $20-billion, dwarfing the top Canadian businesses run by women.

Other Canadian subsidiaries, such as American Express Canada and spice maker McCormick Canada Inc., have promoted their former Canadian chiefs to run bigger operations in the United States.

"Canada has a huge talent base," says Xerox's Anne Mulcahy. "It really is a bad situation when you develop some talent and then other people do appreciate and value that talent and promote so that there is no consistent pipeline [to]replace those women."

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