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Mark Wiseman, chief executive officer of Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), speaks during an interview in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.

Kevin Van Paassen/Bloomberg

Amid the global battle to attract the brightest minds in finance, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board is boosting the number of women rising in its ranks – and one industry group is taking notice.

Toronto-based Women in Capital Markets (WCM) says CPPIB, the country's largest pension fund, has set itself apart by "attacking the issue of women in leadership." Chief executive officer Mark Wiseman earned praise for his role in changing how the organization hires, retains and develops the careers of talented women.

CPPIB is also using its weight to influence companies in which it invests.

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Mr. Wiseman says such change is overdue. "This is an industry that has historically done an incredibly poor job in terms of integrating women into its work force," he said.

Trying to change that has been a 20-year slog for Women in Capital Markets. "I think we all thought we were going to be a little further along by 2015," said WCM president Jennifer Reynolds, as the organization hosted its annual awards event in Toronto on Thursday. Mr. Wiseman claimed the award for leadership by a man.

But Ms. Reynolds said businesses are finally moving from just talking about the issue, to action. "Our industry is very competitive and it's changing dramatically due to technology and other reasons – getting talent has got to be a top priority."

Mr. Wiseman said CPPIB's turning point came in 2012 when it set up a women's advisory council of senior leaders to tackle the issue of gender equality in hiring and development.

For CPPIB, the path to change has three stages.

First, is talent acquisition. Mr. Wiseman said CPPIB works on identifying potential employees as early as first-year university and is considering going into high schools and encouraging young women to take on roles in finance.

Then, "once we get women into our organization, we have to make sure that they build the skills to be successful not only in the roles they're in, but in future roles."

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The third effort is to change organizational mindsets and implement more flexible work schedules. "A lot of people use the term 'accommodate.' I don't like that term because it implies you're making some sort of an exception," he said. "We're not accommodating women, we're ensuring our work style allows them to succeed in our organization."

He says CPPIB should eventually reach a mix of 50 per cent men and women employees, reflecting the overall population.

The organization is starting to see some progress. Of CPPIB's managing directors – the most senior people in the organization – about 25 per cent are women. But that's up from just 20 per cent in 2013. Nearly a third of positions on the investment side are filled by women.

Mr. Wiseman is the first to suggest that CPPIB is "far, far, far from done." He'd like to get closer to the fund's "core services" operations, which makes up about half the work force and includes roles such as accounting, legal and technology. It employs 47 per cent women.

CPPIB also wants its investments to pursue diversity. "In the companies that we own, we have the same motivation to have the best and brightest talent. Through the boards of directors where we have board seats, we are trying to put these same types of best practices in place," Mr. Wiseman said.

Ms. Reynolds says Mr. Wiseman's frankness on the need for change has been encouraging.

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"I'm a firm believer in targets. Not in quotas, but targets. Because every other business objective we have we set a target, it's a number, and it's something we're striving towards," she says. "And we need to do the same with these types of objectives."

Two other awards went to female winners. One leadership award went to Kirsten Kennedy, who has been a long-time volunteer for many industry initiatives while building her career to her current position as managing director of investor sales for Canada at BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. She started the first fixed-income conference for women in the industry and has set a positive example for other women, Ms. Reynolds said.

The rising-star award for inspirational leadership and mentorship to young women in the industry went to Rachel Megitt, director of global initiatives at RBC Dominion Securities Inc.

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