No woman left behind

As more women enter the profession, the sage guidance and advice of a female leader is invaluable. Meet a few mentors who have helped others navigate their careers.

Vinetta Peek, executive vice-president, marketing and business development, Chartered Professional Accountants of British Columbia, Vancouver

Vinetta Peek was mentored by a male executive years ago when she was in the advertising business and found the process so valuable that she has made time to mentor others throughout her career.

Advising women about juggling career and family is an important part of the process, she says, especially when it comes to making sure that young women do not face setbacks after having children and taking maternity leave. "A lot of young women I’ve been in contact with want to have a career and a family," Peek says. "As an employer you have to make sure you can manage that process and make sure you’re not hampering their careers when they get back."

She tells this story: "I had a woman in my group whom I was about to promote to manager. I was going to meet with her on a Monday and she came up to me on the Friday and said, ‘I have a funny feeling I know what you’re going to talk to me about and you should know that I’m expecting.’

"I said, ‘Congratulations. We’re still meeting on Monday.’ "

Promoting that woman at that time was not well received by everyone on the executive team, but she sees attitudes changing. Not only do women benefit when they are supported, but organizations also benefit by saving the cost of retraining when unhappy employees leave.

"And it’s not only a financial blow," Peek says. "It hurts the culture of the organization when you’re not seen as being supportive for people to have work/life balance."

Elaine Sequeira, private banker, RBC Wealth Management, Toronto

Elaine Sequeira 

In her long and successful career, Elaine Sequeira has mentored many women — at RBC, in other programs and informally. But a couple of situations are particularly memorable.

One occurred about 20 years ago at a career day at her former high school. "I was nine months pregnant and a girl came up to me in the washroom and said I had made a huge impression on her. Here I was, a CA who was having a family. It was her aha moment. She said, ‘I can do this.’ "

Another time, through a not-for-profit mentoring program, she helped a young woman whose family was insisting she go into medicine, even though she had no interest in science.

"So I helped her have this conversation with her parents about what her interests actually were," Sequeira says. Her protégé ended up with a scholarship in the honours business program at Western’s Ivey Business School. Sequeira found a local mentor for her and stays in touch now that she has graduated.

"That’s something I’m really proud of doing," she says. "My background is actually microbiology and when I was heading into a new direction [into accounting] I was looking for people to talk to and get advice from."

"The world can seem so huge — it’s nice to have someone help you carve out a path."

Now that women are reaching higher ranks in business, there is more opportunity than ever for role modelling and mentoring, she says.

Jennifer Rhee, tax partner, Richter LLP, Montreal

Jennifer Rhee 

The Women in Leadership Program at Richter LLP has set a goal of increasing its complement of female partners to 30% over the next five years. Considering there are only eight women now among 63 partners, the target is ambitious. But Jennifer Rhee, who helped start the program, likes it that way. "It’s a stretch goal," she says. "But we have to put it out there. If we don’t get 30%, maybe we’ll get 20% or 25%."

While mentoring is important, she believes advocacy is even more valuable because she views it as the best way to help women rise in the male-dominated business.

"You need someone who can go to bat for you within the organization, to open doors, to introduce you to opportunities," Rhee says. "To the extent that leadership is mainly male-dominated, that advocacy happens much more naturally for men. It doesn’t happen as easily for women because there aren’t enough women in leadership positions to bring other women along."

Citing studies that show women tend to be more modest than men and may be uncomfortable talking about their accomplishments, she likes to make sure the firm’s partners know about the goals and achievements of their female employees.

Rhee stresses, however, that one program is not the whole answer.

"It’s more a question of a mind-set and cultural shift," she says, "so that whatever we do — whether it’s HR policy or the way we do business development — we want to step back and put our gender lens on and take into consideration the female view of things. For all of these years business has been operating under a male paradigm."

Isabella Bertani, partner, Collins Barrow LLP, Toronto

Isbella Bertani 

Isabella Bertani, a partner at Collins Barrow LLP in Toronto, believes in helping young women with their careers, but she prefers an informal approach rather than organization-sponsored programs.

"I think of mentoring as something where you need to connect with the person and develop a relationship and then you realize you have a mentoring kind of relationship," she says. "I have a number of younger women who have approached me to ask, ‘How do I get to where you are?’ And that has happened more and more often in the last few years."

Bertani cites the example of one woman who emailed her after finishing her accounting program seeking advice on how to land a job. They met for lunch and talked about her interests and how to narrow down her search to reflect her goals.

"I think it helped," she said, because the graduate did get a job. "I told her to approach certain firms, tell them what she wanted and get to know people. I said, ‘If you make a connection with people and tell them your story you won’t just be this resumé people are getting in the mail.’ "

Bertani knows what it’s like to work in an all-male firm and hit the glass ceiling.

Her first mentor was a woman at a law firm whom she met at a conference. Though they were not in the same business, they had a strong connection that made the woman a valuable sounding board. It is much easier to confide in someone who is not at the same firm, she says, because you don’t have to be on guard against saying the wrong thing.

She believes it’s very important for young women to seek guidance from successful role models. "I wish I knew then — when I was 23 years old starting out in business — what I know now," she says.

Tania Clarke, CFO, Imvescor Restaurant Group Inc., Montreal

Tania Clarke 

Working as an accountant and CFO in several different industries, including manufacturing, travel and consumer products, as well as in the not-for-profit sector, has given Tania Clarke insight into what it takes to get ahead in the profession. And she is keen to share what she has learned with others, men and women alike.

"I believe in mentoring regardless of gender, and include it in daily interactions with my teams," she says. "It allows you to help people grow, to test their limits and [see] if they want to ascend to a higher level."

Even if it means that you might lose them. "There was a former employee I coached and mentored and exposed to multiple situations so that she grew and when she left the company, she landed a higher-level position. She was more strategic."

Clarke believes that mentoring is important in all areas, but that she can make the biggest impact coaching in the interpersonal/emotional intelligence area, since navigating the corporate culture, politics and personalities in an organization can be challenging.

Though upward mobility has improved for women, "we still have a long way to go," Clarke says. "It will be better when we have more women in high-level positions."

Kathie Ross, accounting instructor and PhD candidate, Victoria

Kathie Ross 

Formerly with Canada Revenue Agency, Kathie Ross is now studying gender issues in accounting at England’s Newcastle University Business School.

One area of focus is how the profession’s 24/7 work culture has traditionally penalized women for taking time off to have children.

"Gender equality doesn’t only affect women — it affects both men and women and how they are able to balance their work and life to be able to keep going," she says. "The archetypal accountant who can work 24/7 has to have somebody at home to support him or her, and this is not sustainable in the long term."

It is usually assumed that the woman will be the one at home, or that she will be the one taking parental leave, which puts women at a disadvantage when it comes to promotion, she says. So it’s not enough just to have work/life initiatives that allow for time off. "It needs to be that taking time off to do this should not affect your career."

It’s a cultural shift that involves a new way of thinking.

"These are societal ideas that we have embedded within us, and they need to be changed. The only way they can be changed is by talking about them and realizing that they are there."

Things are changing, she believes, but just seeing more women at the top of organizations is not the whole answer. "We think that a woman at the top is going to change things, but often it doesn’t because the woman has had to take on male traits to get to the top."

Ruth McHugh, executive director, Office of the Auditor General of Alberta, Edmonton

Ruth McHugh 

Women do a good job of mentoring, but I think that more women in senior roles could use sponsorship," says Ruth McHugh, executive director of the Office of the Auditor General of Alberta. "Someone to be a champion for them within an organization."

McHugh believes women can appear to lack self-confidence even when they don’t because they grow up learning to communicate differently than men. And communication plays an important role in deciding who gets noticed and who gets promoted.

"Little girls learn that to be sure of themselves can be perceived as bragging and is unpopular with their peers, whereas little boys tend to emphasize their strengths and knowledge and challenge each other."

As a role model, she works to unleash the confidence of the women she works with.

"Sometimes that’s all women need," she says. "To show them that it’s not bragging to promote themselves and share their knowledge and insights."

McHugh has made a conscious effort to achieve gender diversity on her teams. "When I’ve worked with executive recruiters I’ve said, ‘Please know that if I get two candidates who have equal qualifications and one is a man and one is a woman, I am going to choose the woman.’" Her goal, she adds, isn’t to build an empire of women, but rather to achieve a balance.

"I’m more than happy to do everything I can to promote inclusion of women in executive and board roles."

Susan Smith, senior business analyst, Irving Shipbuilding Inc., Halifax

Susan Smith 

As a participant in the alumni mentor program at Quebec’s Bishop’s University, Susan Smith was introduced to a recent grad working in marketing for an advertising company in Halifax. They were paired up because they shared not only an interest in business but also a love of running, which gave them a mutual reference point to build on.

The young woman had a bachelor’s degree in business administration and was considering accounting as a possible career path. Smith, whose studies at university had included marketing, chose to participate as a mentor in Bishop’s alumni program (called JUMP) because she wanted to give back in a way that was different from what she did all day at work. In other words, she wanted something other than keeping the books for a charitable or social organization, which accountants are often asked to do when volunteering.

The first thing she did in her mentorship role was to listen. "One of the pitfalls you could fall into as a mentor is to give advice too quickly when you haven’t established what it is a person is looking for," she says. "It’s very important to listen to what a person needs."

The two women made a strong personal connection and then moved on to talk about their jobs, discussing issues such as work/life balance, managing difficult situations and building confidence.

Both mentor and protégé have been open and honest with each other from the start. "There wasn’t that wall that comes up when you work in the same business," Smith says. "She would feel very comfortable talking to me if she had an issue at work."

Smith was pleasantly surprised to find that she was getting as much out of the relationship as she was giving. "It’s definitely valuable to me," she says. "It helps me connect to that generation, to have a better understanding of the issues people face when they’re first entering the workforce."