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Tara Weber

BNN Bloomberg Western Bureau Chief


During its more than a century in operation, Canadian National Railway Ltd. has been led by 14 men. Now, for the first time in Canadian railway history, a woman will take the title of chief executive officer. Tracy Robinson was named president and CEO of CN Rail on January 25.

“This is a transformational period at CN, and I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities ahead,” said Robinson in a statement.

CN’s largest shareholder, Cascade Asset Management, is also heralding what it calls an inspired move:

“Tracy is an extraordinary choice to lead CN, where she will become one of the world’s top female executives and be supported by a diverse and talented board and workforce,” said Michael Larson, Cascade’s chief investment officer, in a statement last week. 

A woman stepping into the top job made headlines partly because it is still a first in so many industries. Robinson’s announcement comes after Rania Llewellyn took the reins as president and CEO at Laurentian Bank in January 2021, becoming the first woman to lead a major Canadian chartered bank.

“I know both of them and they’re both incredibly capable, competent women and professionals and it’s well deserved,” said Rona Ambrose, a former interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada and a champion for women in politics and business.

“It’s about time we see women in those sectors, particularly in banking. When you think about how many women are in banking at the lower levels – whether it’s in branches or other parts of investment banking, and yet we hadn’t seen someone rise to the top,” said Ambrose, who is currently deputy chairwoman of TD Securities and sits on the board of directors TransAlta Corp. “It’s really an important signal to women and it’s an important accomplishment.”

Robinson and Llewellyn may have bolstered the number of women holding the top jobs in Corporate Canada, but with the retirement of Dawn Farrell from TransAlta in March, the numbers are virtually the same among the top echelon of TSX-listed firms. It’s clear Canada has a long way to go to reach equity in the C-suite.

“If we look at research and we look at facts of the last decade, we have done so much to support, promote and mentor women to get to that middle management and even upper management level and yet we just can’t seem to break through,” said Ambrose. “A lot of women are leaving when they get to that level. They just decide to leave and when you ask them why, some of it is they just don’t expect to ever be considered for a CEO role.”

“Women are making very little progress at the executive officer level,” according to Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, a business law firm that examined all TSX-listed companies and Canada Business Corporations Act corporations that are subject to disclosure requirements in its 2021 Diversity, Disclosure Practices report.

“The proportion of women executive officers increased slightly to 18.2 per cent, from 17 per cent last year, but is largely unchanged since 2015 (when it was 15 per cent). Only 10.7 per cent of TSX-listed companies have targets for women executive officers (largely unchanged from last year),” the research found. 

Just ask Jay Rosenzweig. He’s a founding partner of Rosenzweig & Company, an executive recruiting firm that has been tracking gender parity in Canada’s top 100 listed companies for the past 17 years.

“The good news is the numbers have doubled since we began doing this research in 2006,” Rosenzweig said in an interview. “The bad news is that we’re still hovering around 10 per cent.”

“People like to hire people who look and act like them,” said Rosenzweig. “If you think about it along those lines, if 90 per cent of the top jobs are held by men, then it’s like a cyclical thing. You’re recycling the same old, same old even if it’s subconscious.”

“At the most basic level, I think we still suffer a lot of unconscious biases around what it means to be a business leader and what it looks like - literally,” said Ambrose. “They still see a man in a suit.”

“People say ‘well we always want to choose the best person,’” said Ambrose. “The underlying message is that we don’t want quotas and so if we’re looking for the best person, it’ll probably be a man. And that’s a terrible message to send. When people say that it makes me crazy.”

Ambrose is set to launch the Women’s Economic Council of Canada (WECC) in the coming weeks. The WECC consists of high-powered women leaders, including all of the female CEOs of publicly-traded companies in Canada, those who have an impact on job creation, investment decisions and economic growth. The council just had its first meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland at the beginning of December.

“Being in that room, listening to these women - they are exceptional and you have to ask yourself: why is it taking so long for these exceptional women to be promoted into CEO roles,” said Ambrose.

There is growing pressure – from inside and outside – corporations to make it a priority to increase gender parity in senior management. Those who are hired by companies to recruit top talent say having more diverse names and backgrounds in the upper ranks has become a requirement. 

“We haven’t had a single meeting in the last 18 months where that hasn’t been the first topic of conversation. Not one,” said Adam Dean, president of Dean Executive Search. 

“I quite literally had a lunch meeting just now with an organization seeking to attract female candidates, as well as individuals from historically underrepresented groups at all levels in the organization in this investment firm,” said Dean. “It’s not just a goal for 2022, but as an initiative that’s launching this year and will be in place for several years to come.”

“Over time, it will become more the norm, but certainly right now every slate of candidates for us has a very high percentage - sometimes it’s upwards of 40 to 50 per cent - where the candidates have to be women and or from historically underrepresented groups,” Dean added.

According to Grant Thornton, the percentage of companies taking no action to improve gender balance has fallen from 25 per cent in 2019 to 18 per cent in 2021 – spurred in many ways by the pandemic.

“COVID-19 didn’t create this shift – it accelerated existing trends and attitudes towards flexible working, the importance of diversity to innovation and business success, and the need for more empathetic, more transparent leadership,” the firm said.

But some experts say the pandemic has also created new hurdles in the career paths of some women trying to break through that traditional glass ceiling. 

“Without question, women who are in their prime career years that also have children are having a lot of difficulty balancing work and life when the life part of the balance has been multiplied in terms of the number of hours of unpaid work they have to do to raise their children, to provide childcare, to provide home schooling,” said Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and Atkinson fellow on the Future of Workers. 

“Some women are deferring accepting any promotion. We know that. It’s anecdotal, but we hear it all the time,” said Yalnizyan. “You don’t get promotions without putting in more time and all we’ve got is 24 hours in a day and we need to eat and sleep.”

Dean says it’s incumbent on men to be part of the solution and that often there are highly qualified individuals that are simply overlooked because they didn’t move along a traditional trajectory to senior management. 

“There are candidates whose backgrounds are different from their male counterparts in the workforce,” Dean said. “They are exceptionally smart. They are very well educated. They are exceptional human beings, but in some instances given certain roles they play within an organization, they don’t get considered for certain appointments.”

“I still see unconscious bias in the boardroom. The board has a big role in choosing the CEO and when you’re not promoting women up into those top executive ranks, you don’t have women to choose from," said Ambrose.

Ambrose said it is time for organizations to do more to look within their own ranks and identify strong performers. 

“A lot of women are pigeonholed into HR [human resources] roles, which are very important roles, particularly right now during COVID,” she said. “But we need them to have operational experience and other experience within companies. Moving them around to different roles [means] that when the time comes and we’re looking for a new CEO, we will have women at the executive level that have had all of those different experiences.”