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Meridian Credit Union is focusing on flexibility and mentorship to promote gender equity and female leadership in the historically male-dominated financial industry.

According to the Canadian Credit Union Association, in 2023, only eight per cent of Fortune 500 chief executive officers were women. However, at Canada’s credit unions, 30 per cent of CEOs/general managers were women and women made up 34 per cent of credit union boards.

Read: Canada lags behind peer countries on female representation in management: report

“To become a CEO of a large Canadian bank, you need a certain level of experience and many career paths become siloed along the way, so that kind of limits the talent pool,” says Jay-Ann Gilfoy, CEO of Meridian. “And I think it’s very much a patriarchal system that started way back. So the focus needs to be on how to ensure the systems and processes inside these organizations are open to diversity.”

Flexibility can play a large role in attracting and retaining female leaders, particularly for those who have young children or are helping their parents. In a recent meeting, senior leaders at the credit union expressed they’re happy with the level of flexibility they have at work, she says.

Mentoring is also a key part of promoting female leadership, says Gilfoy, adding she’s been involved in many mentor/mentee relationships. “I was at a branch [recently] and one of the employees said, ‘Thank you for being out there advocating for women because your voice is important.’ To see women become chairs of boards or CEOs is important for other women to recognize there’s a role model and it’s somebody they [can relate to], somebody who’s carving a path forward for them.”

Read: Women in the HR, benefits, pension and investment industries discuss work-life balance, mentorship and DEI priorities

Gilfoy is currently hosting a ‘manager once removed’ series of meetings in which Meridian’s women employees can discuss their career progression and give feedback. “I feel like we probably need to amp up our mentoring more structurally, so I’m talking to the head of [human resources] about it right now. But it’s really important to create opportunities for women to talk to other women and share their stories, because to get to a role like mine isn’t easy. It’s a hard job and you have to make sacrifices. Talking about the strengths and challenges [women face] makes others realize they’re not alone.”

Unexpected challenges happen in life, she adds, so women need to take care of themselves financially and make sure they’re prepared. Gilfoy shares she went through a divorce and had to re-think what the future looked like as a divorced career woman.

“When looking at a job, I’m the first to tell other women to ask for what they deserve. Don’t just say ‘yes’ because you’re grateful if you know the job should be paying more. It’s something that constantly comes up in my mentoring relationships. I tell them to at least put it out there because that’s how we get closer to gender parity on compensation. Women have to stand up and say, ‘I think I deserve more.’”

Read: 41% of global employers report attaining full gender equity: survey