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BMO executives get frank on how women can get ahead on Bay Street

BMO Insurance COO Julie Barker-Merz says young women must take charge of their careers.

Canadian banks have come a long way when it comes to promoting women: No more boys-only clubs in the boardroom, fewer fears about missing a promotion because of maternity leave.

But diversity committees and gender equality campaigns can only achieve so much. In a rare display of candour, five top female executives from Bank of Montreal's wealth management arm came together ahead of International Women's Day on Saturday to talk frankly about what women need to do to get ahead.

While they had heard all the slogans – "leaning in," "breaking the glass ceiling," "having it all" – they stressed the most important thing a woman can do is to take personal responsibility for her career advancement.

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Charyl Galpin, who started at BMO as a teller more than 35 years ago and is now co-head of BMO Nesbitt Burns, refers to herself as "Charyl Galpin Inc." when offering advice to younger women to emphasize that she sees herself working in a partnership with the bank, knowing that BMO won't, and can't, do everything for her.

Julie Barker-Merz, chief operating officer of BMO Insurance, echoed the sentiment. "You need to take charge, and you can't wait for things to happen," she said.

One of the top things young women can do is seek out the right mentors. While banks often assign these advisers to younger employees, the executives on the panel argued that women need to search for people with whom they feel a natural bond.

"Finding a mentor is sort of like finding a hair-dresser," said Myra Cridland, head of BMO Harris private banking. "It's someone you have to have some chemistry with, and they take a personal interest in you."

Forming a network certainly helped Ms. Barker-Merz. After sailing through the ranks during her first decade at the bank, she felt she hit a plateau when she reached senior management. Male colleagues kept moving up the rungs based on their potential, but she did not. Frustrated, she considered leaving BMO. However, she reached out to other women, and they helped guide her.

Younger women coming up through the bank today seem to be bolder and "don't feel the need to ask for permission," Ms. Barker-Merz said, adding that she will occasionally get e-mails from young women she's never met who ask her to go for coffee.

"I think as women we all need our tribe, people we can call and [receive] support from," she said. "As leaders we all share that responsibility to help start that and spark that."

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Top executives can help in other ways, such as being frank about the consequences of making their careers a top priority. When Caroline Dabu, head of BMO's wealth planning group, got pregnant, she told her boss she would take only five months off. She held true to her word, but that often meant coming into the office with little or no sleep.

The executives also say they make it a point to be open with colleagues about balancing their personal and professional lives. If they have to leave early to take their child to a dentist appointment or make it home for family dinner, they say so. "I remember getting advice from some women years ago – put your jacket on the back of your chair and leave your office door open" to make people think she was still in the office, said Ms. Barker-Merz. "You don't need to do that any more."

Still, there is a distance to go. "We had a lot of progress in the 1980s," she said, referring to gender equality, "and I think everyone felt good about it," but the pace of change has been slow since.

For that reason she supports initiatives such as the recent proposal from the Ontario Securities Commission that would require companies to report on their gender diversity initiatives at the board and executive level each year.

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