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From left to right: Amber Kanwar, BNN Anchor and Reporter; Andrea Stairs, Managing Director, eBay Canada; Shelley Martin, President & CEO, Nestle Canada Inc., and Ilse Treurnicht, CEO, MaRS Discovery District.


At the Empire Club of Canada's recent Women Who Lead luncheon in Toronto, BNN anchor and reporter Amber Kanwar moderated a panel with three of Canada's top female executives: Ilse Treurnicht, chief executive officer of MaRS Discovery District; Shelley Martin, president and CEO of Nestlé Canada Inc.; and Andrea Stairs, managing director of eBay Canada. Here are the highlights of their conversation about issues ranging from work-life balance to negotiating tips to achieving equality at the board and management level.

How do you achieve work-life balance?

Shelley Martin: Everyone has their own definition of balance. In my experience, balance changes by the day. Your work-life balance can change depending on what's going on with you or your family. What I always tell parents coming back to work after being off for a maternity leave is don't stress about it and you will never be in someone else's balance. But you need to be clear on what your priorities are in your life, what your priorities are for that day and have that drive – whether that's spending time at work or spending time at home. Be true to yourself on what those priorities are.

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Ilse Treurnicht: I think for most people at any moment in time, something is seriously out of whack. So you have to make peace with that right up front. Perhaps it's helpful to think about this notion of balancing career interests, family interests, community interests and personal interests over your lifetime. In certain periods, children will take priority and there will be periods where some of those priorities will be less. Don't think you have to give up on them. Just park them for a while.

Andrea Stairs: I like to think more of the idea of managing your career and being very purposeful about where you're putting your efforts and priorities. The idea of driving your car – when do you put your foot on the gas and when do you take it off? I don't think you can manage a career, your family and all of your outside interests at full tilt, simultaneously, for your entire career. It's unmanageable. It's a question of when are you putting your foot on which pedal, and when are you taking your foot off the other pedal? I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old, so there's a certain amount of work there. That is an ongoing challenge.

Have you seen a shift in attitudes toward women in the workplace?

IT: It's a bit sobering when you think back to where we were 50 years ago, and the fact we're even having this conversation today. And how little progress we really make with this incremental-approach program to boards or senior leadership positions. Perhaps the transformation in male-dominated fields like science, technology or venture capital, where I spent some time, will come as workplaces are entering a period of extraordinary transformation through technology, globalization, demographics, changing customer demands and changing business models. So many of the traditional workplaces where I think we've stalled will, in fact, have to undergo very significant change. Maybe that's the opportunity for disruption and when we might be able to design workplaces around the reality that women have babies, which, if we can put a man on the moon, I don't think this could be that hard.

SM: In my time at Nestlé Canada, I have seen the evolution. Shortly after I joined, we hired our first female executive and she was actually hired and expecting at the time, so it was a big deal on a couple of different fronts. But I would say I've never personally had that. I've had the pleasure of working with a CEO who had a 50-50 balance on his executive team and that was 20 years ago. That was purposeful thing and that remains as we go forward… I have daughters that are the famous millennials who don't get what the big deal is about feminism. The female millennials maybe don't understand or don't have that history. I'm hoping that will be some of the transition as the millennials come into more leadership roles. They're just growing up in what they're seeing now. For many of us in this room, that's a foreign concept so therefore maybe they won't put up with or won't be expecting no difference in gender.

AS: I had an advantage because I grew up with a single mom who was an executive. She would come home at the end of the day and you need to tell somebody about what happened at work. Her 16-year-old daughter happened to be the audience. I got a sense of what work was like – the granular progression of work. It wasn't this big thing or that big thing. I saw the pieces in between. I think that gave me a huge advantage because I had a sense of how I can be in business, and didn't have to think about some of the things that I think some of the women who join my team occasionally are still thinking about: Is business right for me? And what does this look like? And being a little bit more uncertain about what that path might be.

How do you achieve equality at the board and management level?IT: I can't claim a grand plan. I think we have to bring the debate back to the fact that we are in a global talent war. Canada can't win with half our team on the field. This is about getting the best people working on the most important projects and also getting beyond the very fixed views of what the perfect leadership model is. If business as usual is not working it's because leadership as usual is not working. It's time for us to open up our mind to new approaches, not just from women, but from a diverse range of people with different experiences so we can tackle some of these complex challenges in a different way. That might open up more opportunity for women rather than be brought out of the cheap seats as a bit of a society's favour to women.

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AS: The data shows that far from making teams less cohesive, diversity makes them more cohesive and there's more of a sense of togetherness and belongingness when you recognize people's individuality, which you wouldn't think. That then drives innovation as you would expect. And innovation – either capital "I" or little "i" – is so essential for us now.

SM: Technology is going to challenge the way leaders are and business going forward, [especially with] the whole time shifting of when you work, flexible work hours, flexible work locations and spaces. You don't need to come in an office with a door, 9 to 5, partly because we're in a global world and partly because technology enables work in different ways to put teams together from around the world. Taking advantage of that I think is going to be a disrupter from a leadership standpoint, but it's going to help all young leaders to evolve in a different way. But as the older leaders, we need to be open to that adjustment and change because having that face-to-face time or 'well, that's not the way we always did it,' being open to the changes, letting that happen, and exploring that for ourselves as well as for younger people coming through.

How can women negotiate better wages?

AS: Conversations about money are particularly difficult to have. I was just listening to a presentation by someone from Catalyst who did a massive global study and they found the average starting salary for women coming out of university – and like versus like for jobs around the world – is a $4,000 gap. In Canada, it's actually an $8,000 gap. You obviously need to ask. I think you have to bring it up delicately. How do you kiss a porcupine? Delicately. You bring it up delicately, but you bring it up. I don't know who wins if you don't. You certainly don't. What's the worst that can happen? Your manager will say, 'No you're completely wrong.' Okay. If that's the worst that can happen – it's an uncomfortable situation, but at least you put him or her on notice that you're paying attention.

SM: It's being clear and doing your research to have an understanding of what's going on. What's the worst that can happen? They say no. But You have to have your facts – the challenging thing is it's not just about the level, but it's about the skills, competency and how well somebody is doing, and that's where it gets grey. You need to do the research because it's not just about title. Those are honest conversations – good or bad.

AS: And I don't think you can have an expectation of having the person say, 'Oh, you're right.' In no scenario does that conversation end with 'You know what? I'm giving you a raise!' This is a multiphase conversation. You have to feel your way through. You have to think what's the worst that can happen? And what's the realistic outcome? The realistic outcome is they say something non-committal and leave the room after that meeting without making any commitment at all, but they're thinking about it. That is the victory. You have to think about this as a long game not a one-off.

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IT: These kind of structural barriers or differentials are probably prevalent in large organizations where there are multiple people at certain levels. Most of the roles that I've had have been in more startup-type organizations. To be honest, I've been extremely unfocused on money all of my life and it usually works out if you pick a great organization with great people without a lot of structure.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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