How to make business work for women: panel

How to make business work for women: B.C.'s Most Influential Women in Business panel discussion

Credit: Paul Duchart

Nick Rockel, BCBusiness editor-in-chief and panel moderator; Richard Mockett, partner, assurance services, EY;Cheryl Yaremko, CFO, GCT Container Terminals;Rowena Gill, SVP and loan team manager, Western Canada commercial banking, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., Canadian branch; Angela Austman, partner, Lawson Lundell; and Mike Bonner, regional president, B.C. and Yukon, BMO Bank of Montreal

6 takeaways from leaders at B.C.’s Most Influential Women in Finance event

This month, BCBusiness published its fifth annual feature on B.C.’s Most Influential Women, with a focus on 96 finance leaders. For the first time, we also held a public event to recognize the women in person. On March 7, more than 300 guests gathered at the Vancouver Club to celebrate and socialize, then take in a panel discussion. 

The panellists were Angela Austman, partner, Lawson Lundell; Mike Bonner, regional president, B.C. and Yukon, BMO Bank of Montreal; Rowena Gill, SVP and loan team manager, Western Canada commercial banking, Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., Canadian branch; Richard Mockett, partner, assurance services, EY; and Cheryl Yaremko, CFO, GCT Global Container Terminals

The central theme of the discussion was finance careers for women: how to attract, retain and promote them. Here’s what panel members had to say.

Role models matter
Not only women but other minorities need to see themselves reflected in an organization’s leadership, said Angela Austman—not just in terms of numbers but also in company values. Cheryl Yaremko, who has succeeded in masculine industries from heavy-duty truck manufacturing and industrial railroads to an electric utility and now a container terminal operator, noted that when her firm recently hired several women to fill senior posts, “They saw that we had a female CFO, and they probably thought to themselves, here’s an organization where I could move ahead—here’s a company that puts women into senior roles.” More women in senior positions will encourage others to enter the field, Yaremko noted.

Culture is crucial
Richard Mockett stressed the importance of creating conditions where people can feel that they can be themselves regardless of their background. “They then can have the confidence to make the best contribution that they can using their best strengths,” he explained. “If you build a really strong diverse and inclusive culture, then it’s so much easier for people to do that.”

When she started out, Rowena Gill thought she had to look or act a certain way because she didn’t see women in roles that matched her skills. It helped that when she joined Wells Fargo, “the conversation wasn’t around fitting into a box but was rather taking advantage of the skills that I brought to the table.” The more that businesses shift away from people having to fit a particular profile and instead recognize individual skillsets, Gill added, “the more we’ll get women up there because they’ll see someone like them or they’ll be able to capitalize on their strengths rather than feeling they have to change to succeed.”

For BMO’s Mike Bonner, unconscious bias is a massive blind spot in every corporation, industry and sector. “We’ve got to find ways through non-traditional methods and programs and products, research, whatever we need to do just to unlock the potential,” he said. “It’s got to be part of your culture; it’s got to be part of what you do naturally.”

Skills are transferrable
“A great thing about having a career in finance is that you have a particular skill set, and you can apply that skillset to any industry,” GCT’s Yaremko pointed out. Graduating with a commerce and HR degree, Gill didn’t anticipate going into finance but “fell into it.” She thinks that’s a common theme, especially in commercial banking, “so the more that we can do early on to help educate [female university students] about the opportunities, perhaps the more applicants we’ll actually get.”

Mentoring is good, but sponsoring is better
“To me mentoring is you’re giving your feedback, you’re helping them understand how to do better, but sponsoring is very different,” according to Mockett of EY. “Sponsoring is when you’re putting your own career on the line to help someone else’s career.” As an example, Mockett mentioned that when one of his clients was looking for a senior executive, the leader said to his recruitment people, bring me females or you’re fired. “That to me sends a resounding message that that is what is important to the organization.”

Men are part of the solution
Asked what advice she would give to men, Yaremko challenged those in the room to think about at least one woman in their organization that they will support, and the next time that a really great opportunity comes up, give it to that woman. “She will not let you down,” she told the audience. “She will do a great job, and you will help move her forward; there are so many men in my career that did that for me.”

Gill commented, “I don’t think women will always put their hand up for those opportunities like men will, so you need more of a sponsor than maybe your male counterpart does.” Acknowledging that men she worked with, especially early in her career, were excellent sponsors and mentors, she added, “If every leader would do a little bit in terms of reaching down, trying to be aware of the alliances that they have, I think that would go a long way. That also applies to women, noted Lawson Lundell’s Austman: “Reach down, and empower the women behind you to do the same.”

Flexibility is key
The three women on the panel discussed how to juggle a job and a family. Gill noted that organizations not only need formal flexible work programs but that leaders should make use of those arrangements so that women feel comfortable taking advantage of them as well.

Yaremko gets to work early so she can leave at 5 o’clock to spend time with her family. “I take them to hockey, baseball,  all that stuff, and then I check back in at work later,” she said. Admitting that it can be hard to leave the office when others are still working, she advised, “You have to set your boundaries. What I personally decided to do was put a box around how much and how long I was going to work and do the best I could with that.”

Austman described how she also structured her work life to allow her to spend time with her family, leaving a large law firm for a smaller one while accepting that she might earn less. “As difficult as it is, and I think this become easier as we get more senior in our organizations, set limits that you are comfortable with and allow you to achieve not just your professional goals but your personal goals,” she advised. Austman also noted that organizations need a variety of paths to success that should be transparent and not have an air of accommodation. “The Type As in the room like me don’t want accommodation,” she said. “We want to be able to succeed on our terms in a way that works in the organizations in which we thrive.”