Women in Canada’s benefits, pension and investment industries talk career, workplace attire and family

Since Grace Palombo joined Great-West Lifeco Inc. five years ago, she’s seen a shift at the company. Back then, in her role as executive vice-president and chief human resources officer, she was the only woman in a group of 12 executives who reported to the chief executive officer. Today, the company’s leadership includes eight members whom Palombo calls diverse, five of whom are women. That alone, she says, has created positive change in the organization.

The diversity of the executive pool is just one example of the major changes Palombo and other prominent women have seen over the course of their careers in the pension, benefits and investment industries.

Read: Millennial women in finance held back despite defying the stereotypes

“Up until not that long ago, most workplaces were very much homogenous workplaces,” says Palombo. “They were designed a certain way and you either fit into that workplace or you didn’t work there. Almost all of [my female friends and I] figured out how to fit in. We adjusted our lives, made personal sacrifices to fit into a work environment. What we’re trying to do today is change that work environment so many types of personas and lifestyles can actually fit in.”

In exclusive research conducted for our 2019 Women in the Financial Industry events, Benefits Canada’s publisher, TC Media, asked women and men about making career moves, promoting their accomplishments, taking time off for family and how they feel their gender affects their career.

Benefits Canada took the results to several prominent women working in pensions, benefits and institutional investing, and what emerged is a portrait of an industry making impressive strides to include and support women — but there’s still room for improvement.

Climbing the career ladder

The path to the top isn’t often a straight line; for many women, moving up means moving on. The survey found 42 per cent of women said they usually move to a different department or organization to advance in their careers, compared to just 33 per cent of men.

Shoghig Kulidjian, director of institutional sales at Russell Investments Group, wasn’t surprised by this finding. “Some women [I know] leave an organization, get a job somewhere else and come back and get the promotion they were due to get back in the day . . . . I’ve had it happen to me, too.”

Read: Editorial: We are woman: A call for gender diversity, pay equity and workplace mentorship

The survey also found men (42 per cent) were more likely than women (34 per cent) to say they’ll ask directly for a promotion, while more women (12 per cent) than men (nine per cent) said they usually wait until a promotion is offered to them.

Krista McBeth, director of talent operations at Shopify Inc., says her career has involved multiple moves to different organizations, but she hasn’t shied away from asking for a promotion when she felt it was warranted. “I’ve never been promoted . . . . I was actually ashamed of it. But I’ve always been negotiating and training,” she says, recalling earlier in her career when she’d ask her managers about the next steps for advancing. “I was in some monstrously big companies and I got a chuckle like, ‘You’ve got to just do your time.’”

Instead, McBeth went out networking and found new opportunities. “When you put yourself out there and you value yourself and you put the work in, these other opportunities come. I have managed my career for the most part, with a lot of help [from my network],” she says. “It’s important to remember that the work may not be there at the next level, and they may not feel you’re at the next level . . . . If the company is not ready, you’ve got a jungle gym out there.”

Palombo also counts herself among the women who’ll ask for a promotion when they feel it’s deserved. Earlier in her career, she started a new job and found it wasn’t working as well as she’d hoped. She thought about jumping ship, but instead came up with a proposal to take on program management and strategy execution work, which wasn’t being managed by another executive. When the company’s CEO agreed to a trial that would also involve keeping her existing responsibilities, she was delighted at first. Then her practical side kicked in.

Read: Most Canadian employers not tracking gender pay gap: report

“I asked him, ‘What would be the increase in compensation?’ and he had a blank look on his face. I was the only woman on his executive team and he said, ‘Nobody has ever asked me that question.’ I said, ‘Wouldn’t you ask?’” Her CEO conceded the point and gave her the raise.

Palombo considers the experience a turning point in her career, a moment that taught her the value of asking for the career move she wanted. “It’s like building a muscle,” she says. “The more you do it, the easier it gets.”

Sue McNamara, vice-president of fixed income at Beutel, Goodman & Company Ltd., has also moved around to other companies to advance in her career, but says it was often after she was told there weren’t any opportunities at her current employer. “I haven’t had an issue asking for a promotion. I don’t think anywhere I ever left was because I didn’t ask for something first.”

Credit where credit’s due

On the topic of self-promotion, female and male survey respondents were closely aligned. About half (54 per cent) of women and 41 per cent of men said they find it uncomfortable to promote their accomplishments at work.

Reflecting on her career, Kristina Humphreys, program manager for rewards at Shaw Communications Inc., says she often finds herself downplaying her accomplishments. “I hesitate to talk about my accomplishments and actually [am] almost shy to mention them. I do take note of them just for myself . . . . I occasionally communicate it with my supervisor, and she’s very supportive and encourages me to share it with the team.”

Read: What is the key to boosting gender equality at work?

The reason is simple, she says. “You don’t want to sound boastful, you want to be humble.”

This sentiment is consistent with the survey’s findings. When asked why they preferred not to promote their successes, the top response from both women and men was the concern of being seen as arrogant or bragging. However, women (36 per cent) were almost twice as likely to cite this reason compared to men (20 per cent).

Shelley Peterson, senior vice-president of total rewards at Sun Life, says she prefers to “[do] good work and let that speak for itself” rather than promoting it. “Set goals [for yourself] and then there’s not necessarily a real [need] to take credit because the results can speak for themselves.”

However, Palombo thinks women shouldn’t be shy about promoting their own accomplishments and work, especially if they want to alert their managers to their achievements. “If you want me to think of you as a credible, confident, capable manager, I need to have an experience of you that shows me that,” she says, speaking from a senior manager perspective. “If you don’t talk about your accomplishments . . . and share them, your audience will never see you as capable or just won’t know anything about you.”

The survey also found the majority of both female (72 per cent) and male (66 per cent) respondents said they tend to describe their work accomplishments as a team effort, rather than highlighting their personal successes.

Read: Traditional performance reviews get a makeover

Christa Taylor, director of pension services at the University of Victoria, says she received feedback in a previous advisory role that her use of “we” to provide recommendations diminished her credibility. But, she says, “that’s not how I view others when they say ‘we’ and ‘team.’ I think it’s a style and I see saying ‘we’ as a strength and competence. I’m not a leader who needs to take credit.”

Peterson agrees. “It’s my preference to structure some successes in the context of what we’ve achieved as a team,” she says. “I believe I have a role to play, but certainly really big accomplishments take a lot more people than me.”

Thinking about appearance

In terms of how survey respondents felt they’re perceived at work, 76 per cent of women said they consider the impact of their physical appearance, voice and image. And 16 per cent said they’ve received unsolicited advice about their appearance.

Taylor considered her appearance in some of her earlier advisory roles. “When I worked in certain environments where those that I was advising or supporting had more work experience than I did, I would be quite young. I would, at times, be the age of their children or younger. I often felt that I needed to distinguish myself as a professional — so conservative haircut, conservative makeup, conservative clothing, in order to feel I was being heard and not viewed.”

According to the survey, younger and middle-aged women were more likely (83 per cent) to say they thought about how their appearance affects how they’re perceived at work than women who are older than age 55 (66 per cent).

Read: Scotiabank looks to employee data to tackle gender diversity

McBeth recalls the last day of an eight-month executive compensation consulting project at a large engineering firm. One of the company’s executives asked to speak to her and a female colleague in private; both were in their 20s and the firm’s leadership had taken notice.

“[He] pulled us aside and said, ‘You know, when we saw you, we thought . . . Holy sh*t, we’ve thrown away $100,000,’” says McBeth, laughing. “And then he said, ‘Well, you have proven us wrong.’ That felt so good.”

She distinctly remembers the power in that moment. “[We were] two very young-looking people who happened to be women walking into a male-dominated boardroom to resolve some of their biggest problems. On the age front, what would you think? It’s good to be aware of what people are thinking . . . but you can overcome it.”

Taking time for family

When Katherine Strutt, general manager of the Saskatchewan Pension Plan, had her children in 1993 and 1995, she received just six months of leave and 17 weeks of employment insurance maternity benefits without a top-up. Today, she’s happy to see Canada has expanded leave and employment insurance policies, making it easier for women to take time off to have children.

Read: A look at extended parental benefits one year on 

She’s also seen more men taking paternity leave, though she adds, “I think we’ve got a long way to go there.”

Indeed, the survey found there’s still a strong gender disparity in who takes parental leave. Nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of women said they took full parental leave to have children, compared to just five per cent of men. A quarter (25 per cent) of women took partial leave, compared to 12 per cent of men, while 77 per cent of men said their partner took the full leave, compared to just six per cent of women who said the same. And a small percentage of women (seven per cent) and men (six per cent) said they split the leave evenly with their spouse.

Women were also more likely (56 per cent) than men (30 per cent) to say their career considerations influenced their decision on when or if to start a family. Almost half (46 per cent) of women said they’d be reluctant to take a full or partial parental leave due to the potential impact on their career, compared to 35 per cent of men.

Kulidjian had two very different experiences when she had children. Her first pregnancy, while working at the Royal Bank of Canada, was easy and she was able to work “the hardest I had ever worked.” She was also allowed to phase-in her return to work after six months by working on a part-time basis. “Then I was back full force. And [my boss] was always supportive of me having to go home once my child started school. [He] never batted an eye.”

When Kulidjian was pregnant with her second child, she was working at a different organization and hid the pregnancy from her boss and colleagues for several months. After sharing the news, she committed to work on a project for a number of hours a week during her maternity leave and she had a verbal guarantee about her position. But when she returned, her team had hired someone else for the role.

Read: How to bridge the parental leave divide

“It was a tough experience,” she says. “I was only gone for nine months, but I worked through my mat leave. And I felt really out of place, like a fish out of water, when I got back. I was like, ‘What am I going to do? How can I show I can add value again?’”

In the investment industry, the bias against women of childbearing age and working mothers is still prevalent, says Kulidjian. “There’s the rolling of the eyes when you say you’ve got to go home because your kid’s Christmas concert is at 3 p.m. There’s no tolerance for that in the investment banking world.”

While McNamara says the words “maternity leave” didn’t exist in investment banking vocabulary 10 years ago, she’s definitely seen a change. As a mother of twins, one of her associates can work flexibly, leaving early or coming in later as needed and working from home a few days in the year.

“We’ve been completely supportive of that here,” she says. “I don’t know if we would have been able to have this conversation 10 or 15 years ago.”

Times are changing

Several women agree the financial services industry still has mixed results in recruiting and retaining women. Palombo says women often make up 70 to 80 per cent of entry-level positions, mid-level ranks even out around a 50/50 split and the funnel reverses at the executive level with 20 to 30 per cent women.

In the investment world, Kulidjian sees similar patterns and suggests this is due to the commitment of doing tours on the way up to the executive level. “How come we can’t retain these young associates in our organization? Well, because you’ve got policies in place that dictate that every individual has to do a term in their level: three years as associate, an analyst, a director, an executive director. If you do the math on a trajectory of where they are . . . by the time they get to executive director, they’ve committed 12 years of their life and by then they’re 34 and they’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to start a family,’ if they’re going to do that,” she says.

Read: U of T focusing on employee work-life balance with family-friendly benefits 

Family-friendly policies are crucial to ensuring women rise through the ranks, says Palombo. “We’ve been told by female employees that is a barrier for them. Sometimes they don’t apply for a bigger job because they can’t invest the time that’s needed, they can’t work weekends or might be going on maternity leave. We try to keep an eye on our workplace, our practices and our policies to provide accommodation and be family-friendly.”

Many women say the influx of younger workers with different ideas about work-life balance and the increasing use of technology allowing employees to work remotely will fundamentally change the industry in ways that are favourable to women.

“This environment is being pushed and kicked by these young people [who are] coming in and demanding they shouldn’t have to stay in the office past 7 p.m.,” says McBeth. “Companies are starting to wake up, thankfully, in some areas and move that bar.”

Click here for some findings from the Working in finance in 2019 survey.

Kelsey Rolfe is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.