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Christine Sawchuk smiles as she sits behind her desk in her office.
From Pivot Magazine

CPA Christine Sawchuk is upending the cultural standard for leadership

The president and CEO of the Chartered Business Valuators Institute wants to challenge the perspective on what is expected from a typical leader

Christine Sawchuk smiles as she sits behind her desk in her office.Christine Sawchuk is a mentor and champion of women in senior business roles (Photograph by Daniel Ehrenworth)

Business valuation is part art and part science. “The science, of course, is in the numbers,” says Christine Sawchuk, president and CEO of the Chartered Business Valuators Institute. “But you can’t get the end user—whether that’s a party to a transaction or a judge in a litigation case—to buy into what you’re doing without being able to communicate how you arrived at a certain number. Working with numbers is just part of what we do. The rest is communication.”

Sawchuk—a CPA and a CBV with a doctorate in education from Western University—joined the institute in 2014 as its Associate Director of Education and Accreditation before climbing the ranks to CEO. She’s long considered analysis and communication her greatest strengths—hence her choice in specialty—but since her earliest days at the institute, she’s deployed her skills to solve a problem beyond the official scope of her role.

“Accounting has pretty good gender diversity overall but, once you get a little more specialized and look at fields like finance and valuation, the representation of women and women leaders really falls off,” she says. If Sawchuk has anything to say about it, that won’t be the case for long. A champion of gender diversity in her field, Sawchuk’s efforts span from evolving the DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) strategy at the institute to mentoring as many young female accountants as her schedule allows.

For Sawchuk, it’s not just about fortifying the role of women in specialized branches of accounting like her own—it’s about upending the cultural standard for leadership altogether. “Obviously, my motivation to get up and do the job is to run the institute in a way that’s going to deliver value to members, students and the general public,” she says. “But it’s also to challenge the perspective on what, historically, we might expect from a typical leader.”

PIVOT: A recent study found that there are more CEOs named “Michael” and “Mark” than female CEOs in Canada. Within your own field, you’ve said that the representation of women falls off in specialized fields. Why do you think that’s still the case?
CHRISTINE SAWCHUK (CS): I think it’s very tough to build a supportive network in spaces that men still dominate, which is why I’ve tried to make it a priority to mentor as many women as possible. The other reason is that a lot of women in leadership roles juggle managing their family and are thus subject to a mental load that men may not be. There’s invisible labour involved in managing your household and that’s often the case even when a male partner is ostensibly feminist and progressive. Of course, people generally have unconscious biases about women that are hard to overcome, like beliefs that women are more emotional and less decisive than men. And, finally, I think women are more likely to be reluctant leaders.

PIVOT: When you say “reluctant leaders,” are you referring to impostor syndrome?
(CS): Not quite. It’s more that women who demonstrate leadership qualities don’t recognize themselves as such because they don’t fit the stereotypical model—that is, that of a leader who is outgoing, charismatic and aggressive. Research suggests that, to generalize somewhat, qualities that women tend to excel in—listening and communication, empathy and emotional intelligence—are exactly what we need in leaders going forward. In my experience, women are more likely to be transformational rather than authoritative leaders—they’re focused on lifting others up. But they don’t always recognize that as a leadership quality, so they don’t self-identify as leaders. Impostor syndrome, which comes out in women’s decreased likelihood to angle for a promotion or a higher salary, definitely also plays a part, and is connected to the issue of reluctant leadership.

PIVOT: In your doctoral research, part of your focus centred on how to attract women to the accounting profession—and to keep them rising through the ranks. Could you summarize your findings?
(CS): Displaying representation is huge. As I was rising through my career and even now, I’ve made a point of putting myself in front of students and young members so that they can see women can climb the ranks and hold leadership positions. Mentorship is another huge factor, from formal to informal. I have always made myself as available as possible to students and colleagues, and have spent countless hours on the phone or going for coffee with people at different stages in their career.

PIVOT: How are you deploying this research in your role as CEO?
(CS): It’s a personal goal of mine to elevate the institute’s education and knowledge in the area of gender diversity. We have a task force (which was put on hold because of the pandemic and recently re-engaged) set to work on issues related to DEI within the valuation profession. We’re going to support policy reviews and educational programming, and implement strategies to hopefully address the lack of female representation in senior ranks in that profession.

But we need to walk the talk. Six of our 14 board members are women, which is well above the national average; all are senior leaders in the business valuation profession and we make sure to communicate that to the public. I personally make a point of putting forward names of women for high-profile speaking engagements or who may make exceptional board members. My three most recent hires have been women and they were all absolutely the strongest candidates for their roles.

PIVOT: Are you optimistic about the future of women in your field?
(CS): I am. It all goes back to what we need future leaders to be. We need them to be agile and innovative, and we also need them to pull the best out of their employees—that’s how companies will thrive in the growing information and knowledge economy. That means we need empathetic leaders who know how to listen. That’s not all women but, typically, those are skills they rank highly in. I’m really excited for the next generation of women leaders. I think the world is going to look very different for the next generation.


Learn more about the benefits of board membership with the CPA Canada study, CPAs on board. Find out why it’s time to bring more diversity to the boardroom, how to prepare for a board role and how women can find their voice as leaders.