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Camilla Sutton is the CEO of Women in Capital Markets.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

After a 25-year career in finance that spanned everything from equity research to running Bank of Nova Scotia's global foreign-exchange business, Camilla Sutton is tackling a new challenge.

But the issue at hand – improving the position of women in the capital markets business – is one that has been on her mind for years.

"Ever since I entered capital markets, it was blatantly obvious that there weren't enough women around," said Ms. Sutton, who is four weeks into her new role as president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets, an organization aimed at helping women succeed in finance.

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"It is a very male-dominated environment," she said. "You feel that as a woman."

Women have been inching their way up through the ranks of corporate Canada, but progress has been slow, even glacial. Last year, they occupied just 14 per cent of the board seats at Toronto Stock Exchange-listed companies, according to data from the Ontario Securities Commission.

The number has barely budged in the three years since securities regulators implemented rules requiring companies to disclose, on an annual basis, the number of women in executive positions and on their boards. In the first year after the policy was implemented, women filled 11 per cent of director roles.

The sluggish momentum has left the commission exploring alternatives, such as whether to force public companies to set targets for the number of women in director positions and executive roles.

In the past, Ms. Sutton would have been opposed to targets or quotas, arguing that decisions should be based on a candidate's merit. But now, three years after the so-called "comply or explain" policy has failed to garner more dramatic results, she is reconsidering her stance.

"I think increasingly there's evidence and research that we need to look a lot harder at quotas," Ms. Sutton said.

"If you'd asked me that question five years ago I would have been much firmer and said absolutely not, we want merit-based [appointments]. But I think now we've realized that merit-based can often be used as the excuse why we're not seeing more women in those roles ... We need to be much stronger. We just haven't seen the numbers change."

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Women are under-represented in the upper ranks of corporate Canada over all, but Ms. Sutton said the issue is even more pronounced in the capital-markets business. She attributes that to Hollywood portrayals of back-slapping boys' clubs and inordinately long hours.

In fact, while the working hours vary widely depending on the role, over all they are not much different from other industries, she said.

"For a lot of people, the enjoyment of the work you do in capital markets well outweighs the demands in terms of hours," she says. "And I think most people have an inflated sense of what the hours really are."

Women in Capital Markets works to fulfill its mandate through mentorship programs, networking events, research, and meetings with financial institutions to assist them in achieving their own diversity goals. It also runs a popular program called Return to Bay Street that helps women get back to their careers after stepping away to raise children.

There's no denying that a career in capital markets can be demanding, but it can also be incredibly rewarding, Ms. Sutton said. The work is fast-paced, challenging and constantly changing.

"I was sad to leave markets," said Ms. Sutton, who left Scotiabank last year amid a shakeup that saw a number of prominent executives and bankers exit the bank's global banking and markets division.

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To this day, the first thing that Scotiabank's former head of global foreign exchange does when she wakes up in the morning is see where the Canadian dollar is trading. "I don't even get out of bed" before she checks that, she said. "My husband's always like, 'Really?' "

Her love for the work is why Ms. Sutton has spent years trying to turn other women on to the industry. She has been a mentor, a Women in Capital Markets volunteer and a member of Scotiabank's diversity and inclusion committee.

"I've always wanted to see more women in capital markets because I had such a rewarding career there," Ms. Sutton said. "It was always so exciting and I always felt that people had the wrong impression about what that career is all about."

She took over from Jeannie Collins-Ardern, who served as the organization's interim leader since August, when former president and CEO Jennifer Reynolds left to take the top job at the Toronto Financial Services Alliance.

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