After I received my last promotion, a mentor and long-time friend called me and insisted I follow one piece of advice before putting my head back down to work: Celebrate my success.
He ordered me to buy myself a gift and enjoy an expensive dinner with my husband. As a working mother, I rarely do either but I conceded and felt grateful for the advice. It gave me the opportunity to recall how awestruck I felt when I first started working in Toronto's financial district and how, 14 years later, it felt like a second home.
Charting progress – and enjoying wins – remains an important part of personal advancement and that applies more generally to women's progress in the business world, too.
Sometimes it can be too easy to get sucked into the quagmire of issues that hinder women at work. While recognizing that the obstacles women face are becoming increasingly complex – a recent study by Ernst & Young found that the single "glass ceiling" concept has morphed into multiple barriers making it more of a glass box – it's important to realize how much the business culture has evolved.
Godyne Sibay, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto, recalls being rendered speechless after an interview with an established Bay Street law firm in the early 1980s. The hiring managers informed her that the interview was a mistake because they assumed, by her name, that she was a man. They had a policy not to hire women, because it had not worked out for the one woman they had hired, who eventually left.
Ms. Sibay said that, early in her career, she attended dinners at private clubs downtown, which had a separate side entrance for female lawyers. She remembers with delight the day her firm passed a policy prohibiting holding events at those establishments.
"Today, there is a real awareness of the business case for gender diversity," said Ms. Sibay, citing a long list of initiatives that law and financial firms have implemented to increase diversity in the workplace and retain their best and brightest women, which, as a result, has helped boost profitability.
These initiatives include Legal Leaders for Diversity, a program in which law firms pledge publicly to hire with the aim of building a more diverse work force, and a similar action plan for gender diversity by Canada's capital markets players.
"While more remains to be done, these are developments that I would never have thought possible when I first started my career on Bay Street," Ms. Sibay said.
Janet Graham recalls the pressure she felt to perform after being one of the first women appointed to the position of vice-president at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in the late 1980s. She didn't want to let down the women following in her footsteps, nor give critics the opportunity to claim that a woman wasn't up for the job.
Ms. Graham, now a corporate director, decided in 2009 to document the insights of and obstacles faced by women on Bay Street in her blog, dubbed Babes on Bay Street. She also wanted to celebrate the successes these women had achieved, and give others some female mentors they could look up to and emulate.
On the blog, she offers women – and men – the opportunity to "Ask a Babe," which could be one of eight senior female executives, a question about manoeuvring through the modern business environment.
While some may take offence to her reference to these "wise and courageous women" as "babes," Ms. Graham stuck with the name, which she attributes to her irreverent sense of humour.
The blog addresses issues ranging from the serious, such as whether women support each other in the work world; to the more practical, such as how to socialize with colleagues.
Contributors to Ms. Graham's blog come from the ranks of Canada's most accomplished female executives, including Linda Hohol, retired president of the TSX Venture Exchange; and Colleen Moorehead, co-founder and former president of E*Trade Canada, now the chief client officer at the law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt.
Ms. Graham's blog also led to her new book, Babes on Bay Street: Stories of Wisdom, Courage and Inspiration. Though the 15 executives described in the book remain anonymous, in many ways they are living testaments to progress.
Moya Greene, chief executive officer of London's Royal Mail and the former head of Canada Post, also participated in the Babes blog, occasionally offering her advice.
Ms. Greene said that in addition to seeing more women on Bay Street than was the case 15 years ago, Canada's corporate climate has become friendlier to women. She believes this has less to do with a new commitment to gender equality and is more a result of the 2008 banking crisis.
"That high-octane, galloping competitiveness, and anything-goes and always better-to-excess culture that fuelled some pretty unprofessional behaviour in investment houses and trading floors is finally coming under fire," said Ms. Greene. An injection of financial caution may have fostered a more sensitive work environment, which benefits everyone, including women.
But many things remain the same and Ms. Greene counsels new female arrivals on Bay Street to prepare themselves for an aggressively competitive environment with demanding hours. She also advises women to reach out early in their career to more senior women, even if they are not in your specific area of interest.
"You will definitely need, from time to time, a back channel to deal with difficult situations and you cannot create that on the spur of the moment," she said.
Invaluable advice for the next generation of "babes" on Bay Street.