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Part 4: Female CEO aspirants making big gains in government

For women who dream of being a CEO, bypassing the traditional corporate world and opting for a career in government is an increasingly attractive route.

The public sector may lack the glamour and pay levels of the private sector, but the success rate for women in leadership in government is now far outstripping that of publicly traded corporations. Assisted by rigorous hiring processes and executive training programs, growing numbers of women are now moving into CEO jobs at Crown corporations and government agencies, or leading government departments as deputy ministers.

Senior women say their success in government can offer lessons to the private sector about using targeted training programs and hiring policies to build women's careers. It also offers insights to business in the less tangible things that attract women to build careers in government - like a desire to contribute to a broader social good.

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"I wanted to change the world," recalls Hydro Ottawa CEO Rosemarie Leclair, who began her career in civic government in Ottawa before landing the top job at the city's hydro utility. "And I wanted to do that in a way that provided some balance in life."

Women now fill 27 per cent of corporate officer jobs at Canada's 44 largest federal and provincial Crown corporations, almost double the 14 per cent of corporate officer positions filled by women at publicly traded companies in the private sector, says research firm Catalyst.

And women held 39 per cent of executive positions within the core federal civil service in 2006, up from 19 per cent in 1995 - a leap unmatched in any other government job category, according to Statistics Canada. This means 1,750 women headed a federal government division or had a higher job in 2006, up from just 690 women in 1995.

Women are also filling numerous top jobs in the broader public service. For example, major universities, including McGill University, Carleton University, University of Calgary, University of Alberta and University of Regina, are headed by a female president.

Karen Kinsley, CEO of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., says the public sector "got a jump" on the private sector because of a long-standing emphasis on employment equity in hiring. Once women were well-represented in the work force, the focus logically evolved into a greater emphasis on management training programs and other development initiatives.

"That has been more of the focus in the last little while, rather than just the notion of representation and equity," Ms. Kinsley says.

CMHC, with annual revenue of $13.2-billion, has grown to have 43 per cent women in its management group, and 40 per cent women on its board of directors.

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Public agencies must be able to defend their hiring decisions, and women say the rigour of a formalized hiring process ensures everyone gets full consideration.

"It has to be transparent, we have to be accountable for the processes we use to select people for promotion or hiring," says Marilyn McLaren, CEO of the Manitoba Public Insurance Corp. "And I really do believe those processes do allow the most capable candidates to bubble to the top."

At Manitoba Public Insurance, where four of the seven members of the executive committee are women, hiring for management positions now requires approvals from executives at two levels higher in the organization - a scrutiny intended to ensure the process was inclusive and defensible.

For Pat Jacobsen, the key to success for women lies in identifying people early who have high potential, and then training them throughout their careers for progressively more senior jobs.

A former deputy minister in Ontario who later ran Vancouver's TransLink transportation authority, Ms. Jacobsen, 64, says she is the product of an era in Ontario when a cadre of women was selected and carefully honed for leadership with management training programs.

"You can count those women deputies who came through [government]in the '70s and '80s and were consciously given quite a diversified experience in line functions - not just in traditional women's roles like policy or human resources," Ms. Jacobsen says. "My career, for example, is very non-traditional in public works and then in transportation. And I don't think I would have ever had that opportunity if it were not for conscious programs."

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Hydro One Inc. - an Ontario Crown corporation operating the province's network of major electricity transmission lines - is using its well-developed management training programs to help more women advance. The process includes personalized training plans, mentoring and regular events for women to meet others working in the energy sector at two other companies.

CEO Laura Formusa says Hydro One, which had revenue of $4.7-billion last year, is still a male-dominated work force with many engineers and skilled trades people who maintain electricity lines.

Getting more women into senior roles means emphasizing special science and math programs in high schools, encouraging women in engineering studies and sponsoring apprenticeship programs for other trades.

Ms. Formusa acknowledges it is surprising that a female lawyer has emerged as CEO at Hydro One given the characteristics of the work force. She says one reason for her success is that she worked hard to understand the technology from the time she began 30 years ago.

"I couldn't possibly turn the switches - you wouldn't want me there. But I am able to have a decent discussion," she says.

Those making hiring decisions in the public sector also know there are intangible things that help draw women and men to the careers.

Elizabeth Watson, who previously headed the B.C.'s government's hiring office for boards of all government agencies and organizations, says many people she recruited liked the idea of working in a job that had a broad impact on society and had meaning beyond making profits.

She felt the motivation herself.

"When I worked in the government, what I liked about the job I did was that the work had an effect on the whole province," she says. "I was changing leadership profiles of every Crown corporation, every college, every university at the board level.… There was just a general feeling that you were improving the way government business was done."

Ms. Kinsley at CMHC said she joined the government with no particular thoughts of contributing to the public good, but discovered it became "a real passion" once she got into her career at the federal housing corporation.

"Crowns have that sweet spot where we're delivering public policy, but doing it in many ways in a commercial or private-sector environment, so you have the best of both worlds," she says.

Many women are comfortable with the need to juggle the ambiguity of government, where bottom-line profits are only one consideration for a CEO.

Michelle Carinci, who heads the Atlantic Lottery Corp. for Canada's four eastern provinces, says women are comfortable with the complexity of building support from a wide variety of stakeholders, including politicians, the public and representatives of related government institutions.

"Not to say that men don't have some of these attributes, but women tend to be pretty strong facilitators," she says. "And when you've got multiple stakeholders and a broader policy to deal with, you need those facilitation skills for sure."

One thing that does not draw top women to the public sector is the pay.

While members of the public may grumble about pay levels for executives in the civil service, they are undeniably lower than pay for CEOs running similar-sized private-sector companies. Many private-sector companies supplement executive salaries and bonuses with shares and stock options, which do not exist in the public sector.

But women say other intangibles offset the pay.

Ms. Carinci says her experience working in the private sector at gaming technology company GTECH Corp. in the United States helped her appreciate that compensation was not the most important factor for her career decisions.

"It was about share value and it was about bowing to Wall Street every morning, and what I learned in those years is … that instead of chasing after putting more dollars in my pocket, I was better suited to working with a good team that is doing something that is making a difference," she says.

Jane Peverett says she suspects one reason so many women have risen to the top jobs in government could be they are simply more willing to work for less money.

The former head of British Columbia Transmission Corp., who left the power line company in 2008, says she earned roughly the same as CEO of BCTC as she earned as CEO of Union Gas Ltd. before that - but only if she excludes the stock and options portion of her former pay.

"I think there's perhaps more women willing to take that kind of compensation package than there are men," she said.

She said she was drawn to BCTC in 2003 for the opportunity to work in the electricity sector after running a gas company previously, and for the chance to understand government decision-making. She now works as a director on major corporate boards, including Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Encana Corp.

Ms. Peverett believes the slower pace in the government sector and the need to manage both political issues and corporate goals can make management more frustrating at Crown corporations.

"It requires an awful lot of patience," she says. "There may be something about that environment that more women are more comfortable in than men would be.

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About the Author
Real Estate Reporter

Janet McFarland is the real estate reporter for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, with a focus on residential real estate trends. She joined Report on Business in 1995, and has specialized in reporting on corporate governance, executive compensation, pension policy, business law, securities regulation and enforcement of white-collar crime. More

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