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Oct 26, 2018

Beyond lean in, elbow in – Highlights from Women in IR Canada

More than 60 people gather in Toronto to discuss gender equality and pay parity in IR

If society continues at its current rate, it will be 217 years before gender equality is reached – equality in terms of equal pay and representation in senior IR roles, according to Tanya Rowntree, global head of client success and equity capital markets at TMX Group.

During her opening remarks at IR Magazine’s Women in IR forum in Toronto earlier this month, Rowntree underscored the thesis behind the events. ‘If you can see her, you can be her,’ she said. ‘When women rise, we all rise.’ Rowntree’s remarks were particularly poignant, given that the event was hosted on International Day of the Girl.

With that in mind, here are some highlights from the panel discussion that ensued.

‘Simply go and get it’

Colleen Johnston recently retired from TD Bank. During her 14 years with the bank she served in a variety of positions, most notably as CFO. While women-in-business events can sometimes provide a forum for downbeat conversation, Johnston inspired the audience with her upbeat tone.

‘Women need to own the space, believe in themselves and simply go and get it,’ she said. ‘Let’s get away from saying we have a chip on our shoulder. The world has never been more ready for women.’

Johnston explained that this is a view she has held since graduating from college in the early 1980s. While she acknowledged that perhaps she was a little early in her prediction that it was ‘the era of women’ in the 1980s – she mentioned that she held this view before the term ‘the glass ceiling’ had even been coined – she maintained that it is absolutely the case that women can be successful in today’s business environment. In order to get ahead, she said, women need to assess themselves and provide constructive feedback, without allowing it to alter their confidence levels.

‘Throughout my career I’ve never felt that being a woman was a disadvantage or that I didn’t get a job because I am a woman,’ she said. ‘If I didn’t get a role, I generally felt that I needed to advocate for myself further, I needed to make sure I had the right sponsors and then I assessed whether there were things I needed to improve in my performance.’

Be an advocate for other women

A theme that has come up at the Women in IR events in both Toronto and New York is that a lack of senior women in IR mirrors the lack of diversity in the investment world – it’s a topic Sara Vavra, senior executive and head of global macro at the New York hedge fund Point72, said she is trying to address at her firm.

At the Toronto event, Stephanie Amaimo, vice president of investor relations at Fortis, explained how her company aims to advocate for women. ‘If we don’t see women at investor meetings and meetings with ratings agencies, we ask why not,’ she said. ‘We try to be advocates at the IR and senior management level to vocalize our desire to see woman at all levels and in all meetings.’  

Most people will be familiar with the phrase ‘lean in’, which was popularized by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s first non-fiction book. Amaimo likened the practice of asking for female representation to ‘elbowing in’. At Fortis, it’s a notion that starts at the top and is practiced, not just preached. Amaimo gave the example of a recent charitable donation Fortis had made. When the charity leadership turned up to receive the donation at a scheduled event, the CEO asked why all eight guests were male.

For Laurie Gaborit, vice president of investor relations at Detour Gold, there have been moments in her career where she has recognized unconscious bias of her male colleagues toward female investors. ‘Sometimes when the analyst or portfolio manager is a woman, you can see [male colleagues] reacting differently,’ she said. ‘The perception of a woman portfolio manager asking tough questions can be different from a male portfolio manager asking tough questions. Sometimes our role as women in senior positions is to give [men] the different perspective we’re seeing. As IROs, that’s one place we can really make a difference to encourage women.’   

Maintain confidence

Another topic that came up several times during the panel discussion was ‘confidence’. Amaimo said her personal experience has been that confidence is developed over time through your career, and that by pushing yourself to take on new opportunities, your confidence can grow quickly.

But Johnston said that as people become more senior, intangible leadership skills become more pronounced, and one of those skills is ‘presence’. She drew a correlation between having confidence and being seen by others to have presence but, she said, women often lose confidence as their career develops – while men become more emboldened. ‘More often than not, the people who are quieter in a meeting are women,’ she said. ‘I think men are naturally more aggressive in a group setting and they’ll often talk over people.’

Johnston said she grew up thinking she wouldn’t contribute to conversations unless she had something additive to say. But, she said, too often women can take this approach in meetings and end up not saying anything for the majority of the meeting. Not only does this reflect poorly on them, but it also damages their confidence, she noted.

‘My advice is to jump in,’ she said. ‘Have a point of view. Don’t jump in and say nothing. Say something in the first 10 minutes.’

Johnston also encouraged the audience to bring others into a meeting if they know people might be feeling shy but can provide a valuable contribution. ‘I’ve had to push myself over the years and other people have helped me,’ she said. ‘So help other people get comfortable and be the person who eases them in. Say things like, John, I know you have a view on this… People will say they don’t want to be too outspoken, but it’s very important as women to push ourselves harder on this.’

Ben Ashwell

Ben Ashwell was the editor at IR Magazine and Corporate Secretary , covering investor relations, governance, risk and compliance. Prior to this, he was the founder and editor of Executive Talent , the global quarterly magazine from the Association of...