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

Women made up nearly half (47.7 per cent) of Canada’s workforce in 2016, according to figures from Statistics Canada, marking a noteworthy rise on 1976’s 37.3 per cent. While that’s good news for the labour force in general, women continue to come up short in some sectors, including financial services.

Camilla Sutton, president and chief executive officer of Toronto-based non-profit Women in Capital Markets, is seeing more young women entering the industry, but with mixed levels of retention depending on the firm and specific subsector. “We continue to see very low rates of women at the most senior levels within financial organizations,” she says. “The frustrating part is that the numbers just haven’t moved as quickly or as sustainably as most of us would have liked to see.”

The reasons for this are numerous, according to Sutton, including leadership cultures and the frustrations felt by women when they’re a minority within a majority culture. “Embedded in all of that are things like unconscious bias and the generalization around the way women ask for raises and promotions, versus the way men do,” she says.

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

Looking specifically at the pension and benefits industry, women are increasingly taking on more prominent roles. Benefits Canada spoke to several of these women about how they got into the industry, as well as their experiences and challenges with gender diversity, pay equity and mentorship along the way.

Different paths

The journey to the forefront of the pension and benefits industry can take many different paths.

Colleen Falco, senior director of human resources at Niagara Casinos, worked in elementary schools and palliative care before discovering a passion for human resources. “With my background in training, education and program management, I ended up in HR in the training function and then, from there, literally, just progressive positions,” she says.

Early in her career, Pamela Cant, assistant vice-president of human resources at Wilfrid Laurier University, considered teaching. “I thought I might pursue teaching, but I had taken an HR course at the school of business and found it to be really interesting,” she says. At the time, Cant was also working as a manager at a restaurant chain and ended up becoming the local human resources representative. “What I like about HR is that you’re a key player in the business of the organization, but at the same time it’s very much a people focus,” she says.

On the other hand, Orla Cousineau, director of UBC Investment Management Trust Inc., began her career as a trial lawyer. “In the late ‘80s, I got a phone call from Mercer asking me if I’d be interested in considering a career change,” she says. “I knew nothing about pensions, but it was a great opportunity. I’d just had my second child, and practising law and doing litigation with toddlers was hard to balance.”

For Carole Bélanger, senior director of pensions at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., it was all about the numbers. “I loved math. I was good at it, and so the actuarial field seemed something interesting for me,” she says.

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After completing a degree in mathematics with a specialization in actuarial services, she worked in both Toronto and Montreal in the field, though she says it wasn’t meant to be permanent. “When you start as an actuary, it’s drills. It’s like you’re a robot,” she says. “It’s computing and numbers, and crunching numbers. There’s no social interaction.”

Bélanger found that social interaction when she moved to the Canadian National Railway Co.’s pension department. “That’s where I developed my passion for pensions,” she says. “Because it was such a big company, everything was done internally. Pension administration, regulation, compliance, reporting, even some actuarial mandates, were done in house, so that allowed me to grow a lot.”

After Julie Cays, chief investment officer at the Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology pension plan, graduated with a degree in economics, she started her career at an investment management firm, which gave her a taste for the industry and, after 16 years in a variety of roles at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, she looked after its pension fund. “I discovered the pension fund investment world and never looked back,” she says.

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Terri Troy, the former chief executive officer of the Halifax Regional Municipality pension plan, says she really liked business, and investments in particular, when she was growing up. “I even remember in Grade 7, I was off to the bookstores buying investment books and starting investment clubs.” She managed investments for the Royal Bank of Canada’s global pension plans before joining the HRM for 12 years as chief executive officer.

Gender obstacles

While these women say their overall experiences in the financial services industry have been positive, they weren’t without some challenges. “I think that the pension fund investment world really suits women. It’s a very collaborative industry in Canada,” says Cays. “In terms of challenges, there are always challenges from an investment perspective, but in terms of work-life balance, it has been reasonable because there are very few pension emergencies.”

Diana Godfrey, senior vice-president of human resources at Fidelity Canada, recalls gender obstacles when she was the only female manager in a manufacturing environment. “But I learned to be very resilient, and I came to understand that they weren’t personal attacks,” she says. “It was just the way people communicated. It didn’t make it OK, but it made me an advocate for change.”

For Cousineau, the obstacles were a reflection of the social, or informal, aspects of company culture. “The guys going golfing, or the guys on a Friday afternoon being taken to a men’s club to shoot pool. I obviously didn’t get an invite to those sorts of things,” she laughs.

Read: Women face gender gap in retirement planning, investing

Fortunately, most of these women say they weren’t treated or perceived differently because of their gender. “I was lucky enough to have great employers, and because of that I think I didn’t feel any pressure because I was a woman,” says Bélanger. “I have worked with women, I have worked with men and I have been treated fairly.”

Carol Craig, director of people, culture and benefits at Telus Corp., says her best experiences in the industry have been with the people she’s met. But the difficulty, she adds, was with people who weren’t supportive. “I can recall many times when I would leave meetings and feel very unsure because of that lack of support. It could be very challenging at times, trying to gain the support and be recognized for the knowledge you have, regardless of who you are.”

While a lack of support from colleagues is discouraging, pay discrimination is even more so. “In Canada, we have a gender pay gap. It’s about 26 per cent,” says Sutton. “So women make, on average, 26 per cent less than men.”

Godfrey recalls a conversation about pay with the president of a former employer. “He said, ‘Well, we would have paid you more, but you’re single so you can manage this. The manager in the warehouse has a family and he’s the sole provider, so he needs to get more.’ But that’s what it was like in the ‘80s.”

Read: Employers integral to closing gender wage gap: report

The issue of pay equity continues to resonate today, says Falco. “I think the thing that has impacted my career the most, when we talk about barriers, is likely just the compensation,” she adds, noting she was fully aware when she was being paid less than her male counterparts at various points throughout her career. It comes back to unconscious bias, she says.

“It’s interesting how those cultural biases still exist instead of simply pay for performance or pay for the role or pay for the responsibilities. I do see it. And, as the person overseeing compensation within our organization, it’s a constant education on jobs and how jobs are evaluated and how a job’s breadth, depth and scope of responsibility is what should drive compensation versus other factors.”


Globally, women represented nearly half of all employees in the financial services industry in 2016, according to data from the International Labour Organization, but some countries are doing better than others.

The importance of mentorship

Despite facing some workplace obstacles of social exclusion and pay inequality in their careers, these women have also had a few remarkable mentors — both female and male — who encouraged, supported and challenged them along the way.

“Mentorship is critically important,” says Sutton. “I would suggest even mentorship from a host of different areas, so mentorship within your own firm, but also mentorship within the industry.”

Even more critical is sponsorship, she adds. “From my own experience, sometimes you don’t recognize your own sponsors in the moment. You only recognize in hindsight that they were the ones sitting at the table demanding that you be considered for different roles and opportunities.”

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One of Cousineau’s mentors asked her whether her career was meeting her needs and provided her with opportunities to participate in special projects or initiatives nationally. “That was important for me, because if you’re out in a smaller office in Vancouver — where you’re physically removed from Toronto — you need face time in order to gain recognition and move ahead in the company,” she says.

Maria Graham, the former vice-president of human resources at Niagara Casinos, acted as a mentor to Falco, who notes Graham pushed the team to look deeper than their daily activities, considering their actions in evolving their function and the organization “to deliver a positive productive employee experience.”

Other mentors showed their support at critical points in Falco’s career, such as when she was changing roles. “So making that first transition from specialist to manager and making the transition from manager to director, or helping to navigate the minefields of internal politics or preferences,” she says.

Read: Gender diversity needed in the investment industry: report

For women on any career path, Godrey says the main momentum is support, especially from other women. “Sometimes, in my early career, I wanted to be No. 1, so I didn’t necessarily think about whether I needed to help somebody else. I think that’s a shortcoming,” she says. “We go to school in an environment where there’s competition. We go to school to make sure we’re top of the class so we get the best job. I get that, but once we get there, let’s make sure we help others.”

Cays agrees. “A lot of women I know who have become quite senior do speak of having had male mentors. I think women are becoming better at mentoring each other, and I think that’s going to be a huge help going forward.”

It’s also important that women never second-guess or underestimate their abilities, says Cant. “We often feel we have to be 100 per cent qualified and experienced to take on a more challenging role. I think, in every career progression I’ve made, I’ve always doubted myself a little bit and wondered, ‘Am I really ready for this?’”

Read: Canada’s gender pay gap could close by 2035: study

But, she admits, she has risen to the challenge each time. “Don’t be afraid to put your hat in the ring, even if you feel you’re not 100 per cent ready to take on that role. There are always people who will support and help you,” she says.

Women in Capital Markets spends a lot of time encouraging women to lean in and take their seat at the table, but employers also have a role to play, says Sutton. “We have a duty to ‘lean out’ and tap women on the shoulder when we think they’re ready for certain roles and opportunities.”


A report by Grant Thornton LLP in March 2018 showed 75% of global businesses have at least one woman in senior management in 2018, compared with 66% in 2017. While these figures certainly demonstrate progress, the report also found just 24% of senior roles at these organizations were held by women in 2018, a slight drop from 25% in 2017.

The report also asked what gender equality policies and practices participating businesses had in place. The answers included:

Equal pay for men and women performing the same roles
Non-discrimination policies for recruitment
Paid parental leave
As well, the report asked for the top drivers for introducing these policies and practices. The answers included:
To attract and keep employees
To live up to organizational values
To enhance company performance
However, there were barriers preventing these organizations from introducing gender equality policies and practices. These included:
Levels of complexity in translating good intentions into practice
Stereotypes about gender roles
Lack of evidence that it has a positive impact on company performance

Brooke Smith is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto.