When Monika Mielnik joined Bell Canada as a temporary contractor, she was studying criminology and psychology and working towards joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“I truly thought this was going to be an in and out experience . . . but as time progressed, I continued to excel and be empowered by many of my leaders and peers to do more,” says the telecommunications company’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, mental health and well-being. “A lot of what I went through over the last eight years wouldn’t have been possible without the support and mentorship of my leader at the time. She was a true champion [and] role model and she really pushed me and empowered me to do so much more.”

Read: Bell Canada launches new mental-health support programs

When the organization launched its Let’s Talk campaign in 2010, it really spoke to Mielnik. As someone who has lived with a mental-health illness from a very young age, the subject is close to her heart, so when a position on the organization’s mental-health team opened up, she knew she had to be part of it.

Jacqueline McLennan, benefits specialist at 3M Canada, started her career in the legal field as a law clerk, a role that eventually expanded to include some human resources administrative support. “If you had asked me years ago what I saw myself doing professionally in the future, I would have never thought anything else but being in the legal field.”

However, McLennan is grateful for her career path because it allowed her to get out of her comfort zone and explore other areas.

Gena Restivo, vice-president of HR, communications and sustainability in Canada at AstraZeneca, also didn’t think she’d end up in the HR field. Her first job was at an information technology service desk that eventually led to a variety of roles across the field, with opportunities to take leadership roles in IT, HR and communications.

Gender representation by the numbers

• Women held 23.4% of total board seats among companies providing disclosure for 2021, representing an increase of 2.2% from 2020.

• More than half (53.1%) of the companies that reported the number of women on their board indicated they had more than one woman on their board in 2021 — an increase of 4.9% compared to 2020.

• Women were nominated to fill 39.1% of the total number of newly created or vacated board seats in 2021. This represents an increase of almost 4% compared to 2020.

• In 2021, an average of 18.2% of chief executive officer positions were held by women.

• The percentage of companies that reported they had no women CEOs decreased in 2021 to 32.9%.

Source: Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP report, 2021

Read: Women in Canada’s benefits, pension industries discuss gender equity, reversing pandemic-fueled ‘she-cession’

“I think it’s so important for women to be able to tell their stories,” she says. “I’ve never really had a defined career plan, but instead I’ve really been drawn and guided by my curiosity for experiences that drive transformative change. The purpose behind the work I’ve done has really mattered and I was specifically drawn into the life sciences industry because of the incredibly meaningful work we get to do.”

Balancing work and caring responsibilities

As any working woman knows, finding a balance between work and home life can be difficult; key to maintaining that balance is a solid support system.

“I [was] promoted to my first management role when my son was only one,” says Lauren Carlisle, senior director of HR at Hallmark Canada. “I had good caregivers for him and my parents helped where they could, especially after I had my daughter.”

But when Carlisle’s father was diagnosed with lung cancer, her priorities changed and she decided to put her job on the backburner for a while. “Our life became very busy getting him to appointments. In the midst of company acquisitions, I asked for a voluntary package in order to spend more time with my family. Thankfully, when the time was right, I was able to re-enter the workforce and create the balance needed.”

Read: Women CEOs’ compensation up 26% in 2021, but ranks remain small

Also speaking to work-life balance, Rosemary Hatnay, director and head of total rewards solutions at Scotiabank, says the coronavirus pandemic affected that balance in a positive way. “Over the pandemic, our kids actually saw the work we do on top of the work at home; my husband got to see it firsthand as well. It kind of changed the dynamic because everyone was willing to help.”

In a time where self-care is so important, Mielnik stresses women need to understand they may not always get it right and advises them to be kind to themselves. “As a determined working mother, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll never be perfect and there may always be an element I’m not succeeding in. As women, I think there’s so much pressure for us to be the perfect mother, friend, leader, etc. We have to be kind to ourselves and come to terms with the fact that we can be all those things, but not at once.”

Supporting, mentoring other women

Sandra Lau, co-chief investment officer at the Alberta Investment Management Corp., says she’s noticed a general lack of women in the investment industry, so it’s been important to her to try to change this trend.

She recently oversaw a project to attract and support more women in the AIMCo’s investment area, with a focus on how to retain and transition women into investments or another area of the company.

On a more personal level, Lau co-founded and was a co-chair of Edmonton Women in Finance. “I did this with the objective to coach, connect and advocate for women in the finance industry in Edmonton. We also have a mentorship program for those currently in business or any interested students in the field. Informally, I’ve done lots of virtual chats with women just to share our experiences, even with some across the globe.”

DEI priorities

The AIMCo’s DEI strategy has four pillars: foundations, people strategy, change management and stewardship.

AstraZeneca is aiming to empower inclusive leadership and foster a culture where people can be their best selves and share ideas.

Bell Canada is ensuring its identifying any gaps or barriers faced by certain individuals, as well as understanding what this means for their experiences or opportunities with the company.

• Hallmark Canada is focusing on Indigenous representation in 2022, especially around buying Indigenous, in order to work toward economic reconciliation.

Read: AIMCo beats fixed income benchmarks with innovation, flexibility

Many women struggle with self-doubt, says Mielnik, noting that negative inner voice can be silenced through support and lifting other women up. She’s open about her own personal experiences and tries to encourage other women to avoid getting caught up in self-limiting beliefs, to apply for any role and to speak up.

Restivo recalls a recent mentorship that reminded her how often that inner voice can hold women back from seeing their own impact. “Many women struggle with self-doubt and self-criticism. A mentor’s job, in my mind, is to provide perspective, not answers. I probably ask more questions than anything else in my mentoring relationships and [I hope], by asking these questions and providing a safe place for other women to help traverse their own ideas and thoughts, in time it can help calm that inner voice.”

When it comes to mentorship, both Restivo and Hatnay recognize how important it is to pay it forward. “I have a firm belief that women need to support other women,” says Restivo. “[Mentorship] helps to expand networks and push women to achieve more than we often think is possible for ourselves. I have the privilege to mentor many women across the globe and, for me, mentoring is a two-way street. I probably learned more from these incredible women then they learned from me.”

Read: Millennial employees more likely to be involved in mentoring: survey

Hatnay believes the way she was mentored and encouraged through her career was crucial, so she strives to pay it forward to other women and foster their curiosity. Often, that means people leave, but for bigger and better things, so she still considers it a win. “It’s great to see people grow within your organization and move on. I want to make sure when working with my team members that it’s OK to say, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me’ or step back and take a break. I’ve been happy to provide references in those instances to help them move on.”

For the past eight years, Carlisle has hired and worked with co-op students to support their development. “While I have assisted with their development, I always find their ‘fresh eyes’ perspectives are priceless and also help myself and my team to focus on continuous improvement of our work. . . . I always encourage those I coach and mentor to never be afraid to ask for support and be ready to offer it when someone else asks.”

McLennan says the best way she can support other women is by building a relationship with trust, support and candid openness. “I try to create a safe space for [each woman] to be vulnerable and both parties know that anything shared will remain confidential. In my role as benefits specialist, my open-door approach has helped many colleagues to feel secure when exploring options and resources available to support them.”

Top priorities around DEI

McLennan also suggests women seek organizations focused on DEI in the workplace, as it’s such a critical part of a company’s culture.

In 2022, Hallmark Canada is highlighting DEI by taking a strong Indigenous focus to increase awareness of the six different regions of First Nations peoples across Canada. “Being a retailer, we’re also sharing where and how we can make a difference through #buyindigenous. On an individual level, we can affect positive change by supporting products and services of Indigenous businesses, organizations and friends.”

Read: First Nations community providing Indigenous wellness benefits to plan members

In the area of DEI, AstraZeneca is focusing on three things: empowering inclusive leadership; fostering a culture where people can be their best selves; and ensuring there’s a diverse leadership pipeline. The company wants to attract and retain a variety of talents, backgrounds and experiences so it can be reflective of the communities it serves, says Restivo.

Key takeaways

• In trying to balance work and caring responsibilities, women should avoid being hard on themselves and accept the fact that it’s OK to not always get it right.

• Mentorship is a two-way street and the most beneficial experiences can be achieved through active listening and silencing self-doubt.

• To truly create an inclusive workplace, employers must lead by example and walk the talk.

Bell has also expanded its focus on equity in the last couple of years. “We can’t advance in sustaining diversity or inclusion without it, so we want to ensure we‘re prioritizing [equity] in addition to other initiatives,” says Mielnik. “Focusing on providing individuals with fair equal opportunities and resources to ensure they’re able to reach their full potential — that’s so critical.”

The organization is also ensuring it’s identifying any gaps or barriers faced by certain individuals, as well as understanding what this means for their experiences or opportunities at the company, she adds. “Whether that means openly hosting listening sessions [or] developing a listening strategy, collecting that input and those personal experiences makes all the difference, in addition to developing those action plans in partnership with them.”

This year, Bell is focusing more on belonging, notes Mielnik, because if employees can truly come to work and be their full, authentic selves, it changes their contribution, perspective and overall engagement.

Lau is proud of the multiple DEI initiatives underway at the AIMCo, including its DEI council and strategy that focuses on four pillars: foundations, people strategy, change management and stewardship.

Read: Expert panel: DEI shaping employers’ innovation, profitability, but more work to be done

However, she recognizes there’s more work to be done for organizations to truly create inclusive workspaces. “Companies need to take a more active role to make sure they walk the talk and lead by example. Sometimes [employers] need to be more bold on the action. I think everybody just needs to work a little harder to improve a higher rate of diversity and inclusive work culture.

“Each individual can make an impact, each one of us can be a leader to make the change.”

Sadie Janes is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.