Helping women find success in the upper ranks of business
PwC’s Lana Paton has set up a University of Waterloo scholarship for female accounting and finance students (Ebti Nabag)
The daughter of Greek immigrants who moved to Canada in the 1960s, Lana Paton watched her parents overcome adversity to establish themselves in their new country. Armed with a similar resolve, Paton has been a trailblazer in the accounting world. Over the course of her 29-year career with PwC Canada, Paton became the firm’s first female Tax Leader and only its second-ever female managing partner for the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), where she’s responsible for more than 3,500 employees. In recognition of her achievements, Paton was recognized as a Fellow of the Chartered Professional Accountants (FCPA) in 2021.
Throughout all her career successes, Paton has never forgotten her humble origins and the importance of giving back. A pillar in Ontario’s Greek community, Paton is a board member of the Hellenic Heritage Foundation and the creator of a scholarship to support students in her hometown of Oshawa, Ont. Paton was formerly involved with Make-A-Wish Canada for more than 10 years, including six years as national board director. Now, she’s established another scholarship for female students studying finance and accounting at the University of Waterloo. Her hope is to inspire more women to take ownership of their careers and push beyond the glass ceiling in the finance and accounting world.
How did your Greek heritage shape you as a person?
I grew up in Oshawa, where my parents were some of the builders of the Greek community there. My father was a trained carpenter back in Greece, but he struggled to find work in Canada. To make ends meet, my mother worked as a seamstress and my father ended up taking a job as a cook, eventually owning several restaurants.
Whenever something gets hard in my life, I remind myself of my parents’ resilience and their courage to try and do hard things. They embraced being Canadian while never forgetting to appreciate their roots. My parents also didn’t speak English at first, so they relied on more established immigrants for support. That’s when I learned how important it was to give back, because you receive so much more in return. We didn’t have much, but for as long as I could remember, my parents, brother and I always volunteered together as a family. As part of our church and Greek community, we would be actively involved in a number of community and city-related events, including a dance troupe, selling baked goods, etc. This helped support our community and other local charities.
Being part of a diverse community facing different struggles, I learned to appreciate the differences that make us all unique—especially the differences you can’t see. Throughout my life, people would see my name and assume I came from a privileged household that had been in Canada forever. They’d never guess I was a first-generation immigrant from a working-class family. That’s why I also learned to avoid being judgmental or making any assumptions. When we make assumptions about others, we’re often incorrect. Instead, I take the time to learn about people with empathy and understanding, which has helped me connect with others in my personal life and my career.
What drew you to accounting?
I’ve always loved solving problems. The more complex, the better! And every accounting question essentially starts with a problem. When I studied accounting at the University of Waterloo, the problems got harder and harder to solve, but I loved the challenge. Accounting is also a dynamic field that’s constantly evolving. The problems are never static. In my early years at PwC, in the mid-1990s, it was incredibly rewarding to see my efforts contribute to helping clients with major challenges they were facing. The camaraderie I’ve experienced while solving a problem with clients, colleagues and mentors has kept me inspired and motivated ever since. For me, my job isn’t just about career progression. It’s about being constantly challenged so I can grow and connect with others.
You’re PwC Canada’s first female tax leader and second-ever female managing partner for the GTA, which is incredible. What challenges did you face in attaining those roles?
Believe it or not, one of my biggest challenges was my own mindset. It took a long time for me to embrace my ability to do broader things than I felt I was capable of doing. When I look back to when I was first made a partner in 2006, we didn’t have as much diversity in the firm as we do today. That partly has to do with the small and often unconscious biases around women that existed back then and continue to exist currently, although we’re now much more intentional and effective in tackling those biases as a firm and as an industry.
But at the time, it was difficult to see myself in certain roles I aspired to because women didn’t typically fill those roles. I had to really shift my perspective: instead of seeing myself solely as a tax partner, I envisioned myself as a tax leader and started actively working toward that.
When I became PwC’s first female tax leader in 2016, countless women approached me afterward to share how they were inspired by my example to push for industry firsts. That's why I think it's so important that we continue to have different people representing different roles—it helps us see ourselves in those people and realize if they can do it, we can do it too. Diversity fosters further diversity.
How have you worked toward fostering that diversity at PwC?
I was lucky enough to have several female mentors who challenged me to think bigger, and I wanted to play the same role for younger women building their careers at the firm. In 2013, PwC Canada created its Women in Leadership (WiL) programme, which takes place over six months, primarily in the form of seminars and networking groups.
Essentially, we provide a deep dive into understanding yourself: your strengths, passions and values, as well as some of the inherent biases you might encounter. Program participants get support from sponsors as well as presentations from female leaders who share their own career stories and challenges.
I’ve been involved with the program since the very beginning as a presenter and mentor. My main goal is to help women and people with diverse backgrounds understand how they can change their own mindset. When you change your mindset, you can then help others change their mindset. We’re now celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the program, which has been a massive success: in 2022, 70 per cent of our new female partners were program graduates. I stay in touch with many of those graduates, and I’ve seen quite a few of them become more vocal in stepping up and owning their careers. But of course, each of us still have to play our part in creating gender equity in finance leadership roles.
Is that where your Women in Finance Scholarship comes in?
Precisely. When I attended the University of Waterloo, I had to work to put myself through school. I was also lucky enough to be a recipient of several scholarships. To help other women facing similar financial hurdles, I set up a scholarship in 2020 for female students attending the University of Waterloo’s School of Accounting and Finance. So far, I’ve donated $100,000 and three students have received a scholarship. Because of the pandemic, I was unable to meet any of the students in person, but they all sent videos to thank me. I was incredibly moved watching those videos. But what’s more incredible is that five other alumni were so inspired by my example that they’ve set up their own scholarships, too. It just goes to show that when you lead the way in giving back, others will follow.
For a female CPA reading this right now, what advice would you give them?
Say yes more than you say no. Look for ways to take yourself out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. When you do that, you change how you see yourself and how others see you, too. Also, don't wait for an opportunity to come to you. Be more proactive. Think about ways that allow you to own your career instead of leaving your career up to somebody else. Taking that approach also challenges some of those biases that crop up in the workplace.
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