Editorial: Looking back — and ahead — in an unprecedented year

At the risk of cementing my reputation as an unapologetic literary nerd (I opened my last editorial with a George Bernard Shaw quote), I’ve always drawn inspiration from Virginia Woolf’s seminal work, A Room of One’s Own. If you haven’t read the essay, it’s basically an argument for creating both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.

While the essay, which was published in 1929, specifically addresses gender disparity in the literary world, it also draws parallels to other industries and occupations. But, nearly 100 years later, women are still struggling to find a “room of one’s own” in their careers, workplaces and larger society.

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This is certainly the case in the financial services industry — though we’re making gradual progress towards gender equality. Data published in 2018 showed that, among the top 20 global financial services firms, 18 per cent of executive committees were made up of women, up from 13 per cent in 2014. And a 2018 global survey of alternative investment firms found just 13 per cent of chief executive officers were women, though 62 per cent had women in non-investment leadership positions and 38 per cent included women on an investment committee.

For the financial services industry, the literal rooms to which Woolf was referring are the board rooms and executive offices. But I think the figurative part of her analogy is infinitely more important. The room of one’s own isn’t just a physical space; it starts there, but it’s so much bigger. When women take on positions of power in any industry, it clears a path and illuminates that space for other women, the next generations, and shakes up the status quo, in the workplace and beyond.

In its sophomore year, our Women’s Issue has packed these pages with women from across the industry who are clearing paths. This issue also coincides with the last of three 2019 Women in the Financial Industry events hosted by Benefits Canada’s parent company, TC Media. This year’s events included exclusive research looking at how women and men describe their career paths and how they take credit for success, as well as the importance of workplace appearances and work-life balance.

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Our cover story showcases several women leading the way in the benefits, pension and investment sectors, including their views on our research findings and their own experiences climbing up the corporate ladder. They offer insights, advice and lessons learned, an enlightening window for any woman, or man, following in their footsteps.

But, despite significant headway, the quest for a room of one’s own is ongoing. One way we’re moving in the right direction is that more employers, pension funds and investment managers are focusing on increasing the number of women on boards and in executive positions — a literal manifestation of providing women with a room of their own.

This month’s investment update highlights the steps the investment industry is taking to boost female representation in their portfolio companies, but also considers how important it is for pension funds and asset managers to walk that talk. And this month’s investment feature profiles Janice Fukakusa, chair of the Canada Infrastructure Bank and a board member who’s making a difference. “There’s a lot more [female] representation in the industry,” she says, “but you can never take your eyes off it because it’s just never done.”

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Yes, the industry is, and has been, evolving. No matter how many steps we take, it’s important to look back and remember how far we’ve come. Consider the void that Woolf was trying to fill nearly a century ago when she suggested creating a space for women. In some ways, her call for a room of one’s own was an entry point to start breaking down a lot of barriers, but challenges still abound.

In the benefits, pension and investment industries, in the workplace, in society, it’s up to all of us — women and men — to keep up that conversation, that movement and that call for gender equality.

Jennifer Paterson is editor of Benefits Canada.