The Peak of Success

The Association of Women in Finance celebrates female finance professionals at The Peak Awards

While women are already outnumbered in the ranks of finance professionals, the disparity becomes eye-opening when it comes to roles of leadership and authority. The 2012 Catalyst Census: Fortune 500 Women Board Directors found that women held a mere 16.6 per cent of board seats—up just three per cent over the last 10 years. Moreover, of the 21 industries reviewed for the 2012 Catalyst Census: Financial Post 500 Women Senior Officers and Top Earners, the finance and insurance industry had the fifth-highest representation of women senior officers, yet reported only 23 per cent of executive roles filled by women.
There’s plenty of room for improvement as far as career opportunities for women go in the finance industry. Thankfully, one local group is tenaciously striving toward that goal. The Association of Women in Finance (AWF) is a long-established and still-growing group of professionals who are dedicated to supporting the advancement of women in the finance industry.
In 1994, frustrated with the lack of networking and professional development opportunities for finance professionals in Vancouver, as well as the industry’s under-representation of women, a small group of women banded together to share their knowledge, experience and contacts. The idea was so well received that they officially established the AWF in 1995 and sought out opportunities to expand its membership.
While the association has since grown by leaps and bounds, its core objectives have remained the same: to network, educate and promote women in the field of finance. Today, AWF has a volunteer board of 13 members and a contact list of more than 1,200 women working in all aspects of B.C.’s finance industry, from lawyers and accountants to actuaries, insurers and venture capitalists.
“We are an events-based organization rather than a membership-based organization,” explains Women in Finance president Vanessa Noga, a senior commercial account manager at RBC. “We’re all looking to develop and use our skills in a way that we can have an impact on the market… so we want to provide substantive professional development at our events, which we put on throughout the year.”
Highlights include September’s Annual Real Estate Luncheon, a provocative panel discussion on the state of Vancouver’s real estate market, and November’s Annual Economic Luncheon, where an expert panel discusses the economic outlook from a global, national and regional perspective and the impact it will have on B.C. businesses, families and investors. One of the most popular events, says Noga, is the Fireside Chat series, where participants sit down at a boardroom table for an intimate discussion with a leading professional from B.C.’s business community. Recent guests who have shared their advice and experience have included Weyerhaeuser president Anne Giardini and HSBC CFO Graham McIsaac.
“There are lots of activities that we put on,” says Noga, “but it’s all about women, from the grassroots level to the top, supporting each other – we help women enter the finance industry and develop skills, we encourage mentoring role models and share and learn from one another, and, importantly, we celebrate successes.”
Now in its 16th year, the Peak Awards are AWF’s largest event. Standing for performance, excellence, achievement and knowledge, the Peak Awards recognize trailblazers and other accomplished women who are making an impact on the finance community. “We introduced the Peak Awards in our second year as an association because we felt that women in finance were really being overlooked,” explains founding president Stephanie Sharp, a finance expert, coach and negotiator with Ferax Consulting. “A number of our members were saying, ‘Wow, we’re meeting all these unbelievably amazing women at the Women in Finance meetings and we’ve never heard of them before—and we’re in the industry!’ We need to highlight that we have these really talented women in B.C.”
[pagebreak] The Peak Awards committee accepts nominations in five categories: Excellence in the Private Sector, Excellence in the Public Sector, Rising Star, Community Legacy and Lifetime Achievement. This year’s chosen honourees were announced in February, and will be recognized at the awards ceremony at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel on May 2.
A consistently sold-out affair every year, the Peak Awards are always highly anticipated. “We have 400 of the best and brightest from the business community in Vancouver and beyond who attend, so it’s a really great opportunity for them to network, touch base with their contacts and exchange information,” says awards chair Kate McKechnie, a senior manager with Ernst & Young. “The attendees are people from the pillars of the finance community—the big banks, credit unions, major accounting firms and law firms, as well as recruiting, education, governance and private equity organizations.”
While it’s not surprising that the majority of Peak attendees are women, men are more than welcome, notes McKechnie, pointing out that anyone in the business community can understand the importance of inclusivity and diversity in leadership. “One of the ways you can show your support for the cause is coming for an evening to celebrate the accomplishments of women. Whether you know them or not, I think just being in the room and sharing your appreciation for what they’ve done, and the road they’ve paved, is such an amazing thing.”
The Peak Awards are also the primary vehicle for fundraising for the AWF in Finance’s scholarship program—a key initiative of the association to encourage women to enter the field of finance or to further their career through education. Last year alone, AWF handed out over $15,000 to aspiring students at BCIT, Douglas College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, UBC’s Faculty of Law and SFU’s MBA program.
The theme of this year’s Peak Awards, “balanced board, better business,” reflects the association’s primary objective to increase the representation of women on boards of governance by preparing and promoting women as candidates for board positions. “The finance industry is still very male-dominated,” observes Sharp, who has been involved with AWF for nearly 20 years. “In some areas, women have made a lot of inroads—in others, not so much. And at senior board levels, we haven’t seen a lot of movement. Yet studies have shown that having women on boards contributes to better financial results. I think it’s a fabulous focal point for Women in Finance. I can’t think of anything that has a more direct impact than having women on boards.”
Sharp holds that it’s a focus that benefits more than the career paths of women finance professionals. “Studies have shown over and over again that bringing women into the mix leads to better financial decision-making. It diversifies the perspective because women have a different way of approaching issues. If you can attract and retain more women and help them move through the industry and gain more seniority, you’re going to get better financial results and performance overall.”
Interested in attending or sponsoring an AWF event, or want to nominate someone for next year’s Peak Awards? Visit