Women in Canada’s benefits, pension industries talk gender diversity

Early in Lana Burnstad’s career, she worked at a railway company that was merging several regional railways and their various benefits plans.

Part of that process included working with multiple unions, which were traditionally male-dominated environments at the time.

“That was a rough process — swearing and fist-pounding . . . . It was pretty horrible,” says the current senior manager of benefits, abilities and wellness at Epcor Utilities Inc. “At first, those guys really didn’t know what to do about [my presence] because it changed the dynamic.”

A couple of weeks after the first meeting, the union leaders contacted management to find out if Burnstad would be at the next one. “The union rep said, ‘We realize we all behave better and we’re getting a lot more done,’” she says. “It wasn’t anything I was adding from an expertise perspective, but . . . to be able to show up and bring whatever gifts you can bring to the table with your own style, it can change and make the whole process run a little differently.”

Read: Editorial: Can working women have it all?

Speaking up — and in doing so, being heard — is just one of the many themes running across the careers of women in the human resources, benefits, pension and investment industries. In Benefits Canada’s third annual Women’s Issue, nine women discuss career paths and experiences, challenges along the way, mentorship, work-life balance and what the future holds.

Speaking up

Colleen Falco, Niagara Casinos’ vice-president of HR, was raised by a father who always tried to instill in her that girls can do anything boys can do. When she said she wanted to be a stewardess, he said, “Why can’t you be the pilot?”

“And truly, that was the mantra. I think that gave me confidence to speak up in meetings or to make sure that I was sharing a point that was important to get across and not to be intimidated by, not just gender, but even title. I think that has helped in my career and certainly, I think, has helped the organization.”

Karen Collins, chief talent officer at BMO Financial Group, faced situations early in her career in which she found it difficult to speak up. “I received feedback that, one on one, I was really effective, but in meetings, especially with more senior people, in bigger groups, I wasn’t sharing perspectives as strongly. So I had to figure out how to find the confidence to overcome this and I had to practice how to express my point of view, especially when I didn’t agree with the sentiment in the room.”

Read: Women in Canada’s pension, benefits industry discuss careers, pay equity and mentorship

This is a particular challenge for women, she notes, especially for those who are more introverted, but she believes it’s an area where women can help each other. “When I notice a woman in a meeting isn’t speaking up or we haven’t heard from her, I’ll deliberately create space to make that happen.”


• At BMO, more than 40% of senior leadership roles are filled by women. Among 14 employee resource groups, its largest is the BMO Alliance for Women.

67% of CAA Club Group’s workforce is female, as well as 69% of its senior management and 62% of its board of directors.

Citi Canada’s workforce is 52% women, while its board of directors and managers are each comprised of 44% women.

57% of KPMG Canada’s senior leadership team is women and it has 7 women’s employee resource groups across the firm.

Niagara Casinos’ NCWomen program includes 631 women. As well, women represent 33% of the senior leadership team and 25%
of the executive committee.

• The OMERS’ Women in Leadership program has 20 female participants and its women’s employee resource group has 300 members.

• Women make up 1/2 of the Ontario Teachers’ board and 3/5 of its investment heads.

Annesley Wallace, chief pension officer at the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, also highlights the importance of encouraging women to share their ideas. In addition to the OMERS’ women in leadership program and women’s employee resource group, it recently launched lean-in circles, groups of eight to 10 women discussing topics like career progression and development in a facilitated session.

“So far, the feedback around those has been incredible, just in terms of connecting women from across the organization . . . and being able to have candid, open discussions. I think there’s a ton we can continue to do to make sure we’re promoting women, we’re amplifying their successes and I think that goes along with encouraging people to always speak up.

“When women are in meetings or in boardrooms and they don’t feel comfortable speaking up, that’s a real challenge,” she adds. “It just puts more emphasis on the need for everyone — men and women — to encourage everyone who participates, either in meetings or workshops or on teams, to make sure they are speaking up, voicing their opinions. And ultimately, that’s the only way we will achieve the benefits of having more diversity in an organization.”

Diverse perspectives

When it comes to mentors, Katherine Faichnie, director of HR at IBM, learned early in her career the importance of having a variety, since each one can bring something different to the table. “That’s been one of the big learnings from my mentors — that they can each serve a different purpose and they don’t all have to look alike or the relationships all be the same.”

For Mara Notarfonzo, assistant vice-president of compensation and benefits at CAA Club Group, her mentors pushed her out of her comfort zone, which she tries to do with the people she mentors as well. “Throughout the years, I’ve taken on the role of coaching or mentoring individuals to reach their full potential. It’s really just starting with identifying their strengths, because sometimes they may not know what strengths they have . . . . So harness their strengths and tap into their natural abilities and their curiosity and be inquisitive about learning something — and it’s that excitement that really gets them through the hard times.”

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

In mentoring others, Stella Yu, vice-president of total rewards at Citibank Canada, believes it’s also important to understand employees’ personal lives, know their kids and send their partners thank-you notes after a particularly intense period. “Having their families’ support is very important to both my team [and] the work we need to do together. . . . I really see their family as an extended part of the team. When they’re here at work, if something is on their mind, I know it’s going to impact how they feel and how they deliver at work. The same thing, if bad things happen at work, they bring it home.

“I think I’ve gotten to a good place with my current team — everyone is managing the new reality [of the coronavirus] pretty well, we know we can count on each other and the stress level has been very well managed,” she adds.

Work-life balance

While mentorship is certainly critical during this challenging time, work-life balance has been a hot topic of discussion as well, with the pandemic pushing the boundaries of remote and flexible working.

“It’s really important that, as leaders and as women, we try to put a lens on it to give people more opportunities for choices in how they’re going to manage . . . work-life balance,” says Tracy Abel, chief pension officer at the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

Indeed, with two children and a husband who was self-employed when they were young, she believes it’s all about making choices. “I once went to daycare to pick them up and they asked for ID because they didn’t know who I was. That can sting and then you realize, I made that choice. If I’m not happy with that choice . . . then make a different choice and know what choices you have in front of you and the choices you can make and the ones you can’t.”

It’s critical to have someone who shares in childcare and housework, says Burnstad, but understanding and flexibility from an employer is also key. “Flexibility is something I’m really passionate about. Tell me what you need, I’m here to creatively work with you, however that looks. If you have elder-care issues, we’ll flex your hours or we’ll bank some of your vacation time. And that is a great investment. For employees — myself included — that means more to me than anything else.”

Read: How can employers support staff with children during pandemic schooling?

Faichnie believes it’s her responsibility to be transparent with her employer about what she can and can’t do. “Given the current COVID-19 environment, it’s one of the things I strongly express to my team — that only you can set the parameters of what work-life balance looks like for you. And then you have a responsibility to make sure that all the people around you understand what those are so they don’t accidentally overstep or make it harder for you to keep that balance. . . . The key to work-life balance for individuals and teams is to feel comfortable and trusting enough to be honest about what it is for you.”

The She-cession

1.5 million Canadian women lost their jobs in the first two months of the pandemic.

• Women also accounted for about 45% of the decline in hours worked over the downturn, but only make up 35% of the recovery.

• Employment among women with toddlers or school-aged children fell 7% between February and May, compared with a 4% decrease for fathers of children the same age.

• Single mothers with a toddler or school-aged child saw their employment drop 12% between February and June, compared with a 7% decrease for single fathers.

Source: Royal Bank
of Canada survey,
July 2020

Notarfonzo’s work-life balance philosophy is about planning and prioritizing, given the ebbs and flows of life. She recently faced the challenge of watching an elderly parent progress through Alzheimer’s. In that case, it was critical to have the support and understanding of her manager and the entire HR team.

“With Alzheimer’s, you have a norm for a period of time and then you have a significant drop. That becomes your new reality that you have to cope with. . . . For me, it’s working with people that are highly empathetic, caring and collaborative. I never had to worry when things were going on, things always got done.”

For Collins, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for work-life balance, though she notes it’s important to openly talk about it. “No one would ever want to repeat [COVID-19], but it has had some silver linings. One of the things is the flexibility. I’m with my family more than I ever have been before and I’m really enjoying that . . . . It’s also made me realize the work-life balance that I thought I had wasn’t as balanced enough, so it’s brought great perspective.”

Read: What work-life balance benefits do employees value most?

Even before the pandemic, Lisa Park, director of total rewards at KPMG Canada, worked exclusively at home because of mobility challenges related to her multiple sclerosis. “If I wasn’t able to work from home, I don’t know that I would be in this director position because people with disabilities face significant barriers just to get around in society. I think it would have been too big of a hurdle for me to balance work and life if I weren’t able to work from home.”

Indeed, one of Park’s biggest challenges is separating work and life. “I developed strategies some time ago, whereby once I’m done my work, I do something I like. I don’t have that commute from home to unwind and leave the day behind, so I find things to do before I go on to my life activities like making supper or cleaning the house. I make sure there’s a separation between the two and I have my own separate space.”

Extending the ladder

While there’s no question women are still under-represented in Canada’s financial sector, broader diversity has also been an important focus in 2020.

When it comes to workplace diversity, Park has faced slightly different challenges. “As a person with a disability, I think they’re already disadvantaged when it comes to employment — and being a disabled woman is extremely challenging. I do still think our society places a bit of a stigma on people with disabilities in terms of how able or capable they are . . . . As a society, we exclude — and not intentionally — people with disabilities by the lack of accessibility.”

Read: Supporting disabled employees needs a blend of formal benefits, flex policies

Collins says she feels optimistic about the future of women in financial services, particularly with the recent focus on racial inequality and diversity. BMO has a leadership committee for inclusion and diversity, which is a group of 25 senior executives co-chaired by two senior leaders from the business that meets on a quarterly basis. It also has 14 employee resource groups, the biggest of which is the BMO Alliance for Women.

“We’re also thinking about the silver lining part of COVID-19; how can we think about the ways that women — parents, but women, in particular — have more flexibility coming out of this pandemic? I really believe more flexibility is good for women, so that’s one of the things that makes me feel optimistic.”

Also, Collins notes the premium skills coming out of the pandemic are those that have traditionally been associated with women, such as clear communication, empathy and agility. “And I think all of us need to be really aware of pushing for equality . . . in our homes, in our communities and at work to ensure that women will have the level playing field, so we can continue to feel optimistic about women and our industry.”

Burnstad agrees, saying she expects workplaces will reflect the inherent traits typically credited to women, including empathy, deep listening and a coaching approach. “And how does that manifest? What does it look like at the end of the day? Does it look like things are different for women? I don’t know. But I think it will be better for folks that have not been represented well in workplaces. I think it will be a big change for people who have visible challenges, there may be just the ability to embrace diversity — period — better.”

Read: Scotiabank recognized for creating culture of diversity in workplace

From a gender diversity perspective, Wallace believes the industry is reaching a tipping point. “There are now a number of women in senior positions and I think that allows other women who may be more junior in the organization to see themselves in those types of roles and then are more interested in staying with the organization and continuing to work towards those objectives. I feel like the momentum is there and it’s happening, so I feel optimistic about what it could look like in the years to come.”

For women who take time off to raise their families, IBM offers a program called Tech Re-entry, which helps re-orientate these women and get them back up to speed with technology changes. “So giving them an easier, more comfortable trusting path to get back to where they probably were before they left to take time off,” says Faichnie.

Key takeaways

• To foster more workplace diversity, it’s important to encourage and support women to speak up, promoting their perspectives and expertise.

• As the pandemic pushes the boundaries of remote and flexible working, work-life balance has taken on a whole new meaning.

• The workplaces of the future are expected to take on more characteristics traditionally credited to women, including empathy, agility and deep listening.

She faced a similar situation herself when she became pregnant with her second daughter. “I was shocked how many people — men, women — would say to me, ‘Of course, you’re not going to come back to work;’ as if, because of my gender, that’s what was going to happen. So I’m really pleased now that my daughters are young women and I feel like the world has evolved somewhat and people don’t automatically think they’re not going to come back or take the full maternity [leave]. But it’s still there; we’re still not fully equal in the way we look at family commitments or decisions and choices relative to gender.”

Yu is also seeing high-quality discussions about supporting women and other minorities, with a lot of concrete measures being introduced or at least set as aspirational goals. “I have a daughter who graduated two years ago from university and she works in management consulting and I can see the type of work-life balance [and] flexibility that her firm offers to attract more young women into a very competitive and stressful type of environment. I think, as a group, women are doing a better job of supporting each other and I also see the commitment from senior leadership to support more women, more diversity in the workplace.”

Read: Gender inequality in the workplace, retirement addressed in budget

There will always be barriers, she adds, noting she’s seeing more of a conscious effort to overcome these and to bring more women into the workforce. “More and more, we’re conscious about being vocal about what we want in life. In the past, I think a lot of people didn’t want to say, ‘I want to have a balance’ and you’d see those who made it to the top seem to spend endless hours in work. But I think that culture is changing at a pretty fast speed. So that makes me feel really hopeful.”

Jennifer Paterson is the editor of Benefits Canada.