Breaking the Glass Ceiling

pink hand breaks through blue glass
Contributing writer

12 minutes

In Canada, more women are advancing to credit union than bank C-suites, but more progress could still be made.

After generations of effort and rising expectations, it’s still a challenge for women to reach the boardrooms and C-suites of Canadian financial institutions. But credit unions are doing better than banks at cracking the glass ceiling.

A report by credit rating agency DBRS Morningstar found that both banks and credit unions are moving toward gender parity in their boards, but there’s still a ways to go. Canadian credit unions had 44% representation of women in their executive suites compared with only 33% at the banks.

The report, released in 2023, looked at 19 Canadian financial institutions and found that fewer than 20% of banks—only two—had female chief executive officers, while 38% of credit unions were led by female CEOs.

Questions: Why Not More Female Executives?

This raises a big question, the DBRS Morningstar report said. “If over half of the sampled Canadian banks’ workforce is female, and the talent and leadership pipeline is ahead of most other U.S. and European peers, why does the proportion of women still decrease markedly at executive levels?”

The report raises other questions too. While boardroom gender diversity is still an elusive goal at financial institutions, Canadian institutions overall are doing better than their counterparts in the United States and Europe. And within Canada, credit unions are leading the way, ahead of banks. Why?

In an era when ESG—environmental, social and governance provisions—have taken on increasing importance in the corporate and financial sectors, why is it still so challenging to bring more women into boardroom leadership? What are credit unions doing right? And what more needs to be done?

It’s clear that credit unions are putting considerable thought into how to nurture and grow gender diversity in the boardroom. A lot of it has to do with understanding the barriers that prevent women from getting ahead. These barriers include both practical, concrete obstacles and more nuanced, intangible differences in the way male-dominated boardrooms tend to operate.

“I can speak to our experience as a credit union and as a smaller financial institution,” says Jay-Ann Gilfoy, president/CEO of $26.6 billion Meridian Credit Union, Ontario’s largest CU with 365,000 members.

“It comes down to time and flexibility. There has been some very interesting work done on why there are fewer women at the highest ranks or in the highest paying jobs,” she says.

“The roles at the top tend to have longer hours and are more rigid in terms of time spent at the office or traveling. This is a barrier for women who often have responsibilities for childcare or aging parents that men do not have,” she explains.

Research on Gender Gap—and Closing It

Gilfoy points to research by Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin, who won the 2023 Nobel Prize in economics for her work on gender pay gaps. In her 2014 publication, “A Grand Gender Convergence: Its Last Chapter,” Goldin noted that the converging roles of men and women have been among the greatest advances in society in the last century, but closing the gap can get harder as women edge toward the top.

Closing the gender gap in pay, for example, would be easier “if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who labored long hours and worked particular hours.” The push to get upper-level staff to stay long and late is changing in some sectors, but such change “is less apparent in the corporate, financial and legal worlds,” according to Goldin.

“I experienced this firsthand when I was the only woman senior executive on the team and the boss would call 5 p.m. meetings,” Gilfoy says. “I had to pick my young kids up from school, but the other [male] executives’ wives took care of that for them. As a sign of the times, I never said anything about my childcare issues to my boss,” she says.

Annette Bester
Audit Partner and National Leader of Credit Union Service
Credit unions have been leaders in advancing women to upper-level positions.

Even amidst such challenges, “credit unions have been leaders in advancing women to upper-level positions,” says Annette Bester, audit partner and national leader of Credit Union Services at MNP, an accounting and consulting firm that advises credit unions.

“This has been the case for as long as I’ve been leading this area for MNP,” she says. Attracting female executives can be self-fulfilling, drawing more women into the pool as they see successful examples that they can emulate.

“I believe this is the reason more women have risen to the executive ranks. Credit unions also can attract amazing talent because of the credit unions’ underlying values,” she says. The DBRS Morningstar report backs this up, noting that its research indicates credit unions’ “mission of maximizing member benefits versus profits” is a factor in encouraging women to reach for the top.

“These values resonate with a lot of the women in leadership that I know in the credit union space,” Bester says.

Different Leadership Styles

It’s important to understand the more subtle differences in management and boardroom style that often emerge between men and women at the top levels, says CUES member Launi Skinner, CEO of $13.7 billion First West Credit Union, headquartered in Langley, British Columbia.

“Women aren’t necessarily as outspoken as men. When you go into a room and there are more men than women, it creates a barrier as to whether you’re the person who speaks up,” Skinner says in an online video series on women in leadership roles posted by MNP.

In her early boardroom experience, “there were times where I didn’t offer a thought,” she says.

She has learned since that as a woman in leadership, it’s important to “use your voice—don’t use your voice to be just like a man, but your own voice. You’ll bring a different perspective, and that’s what diversity is about.

“There’s also the social side to consider,” she adds. For example, lot of C-level leaders like to golf, and the men often want to talk about hockey. “I used to golf, but then we had kids, and the priority wasn’t to spend six hours to golf. So as a woman, you would often feel that you are at a disadvantage.”

Skinner says she overcame these barriers by taking simple measures, such as asking her husband to update her on the hockey standings so she could carry on a friendly conversation … an icebreaker, so to speak. Friendly, casual talk is a two-way street, though, and now she expects other executives to be interested in her topics of interest as well.

“If I just engaged with you about something that you like talking about, which is hockey, I would like you to engage with me about something that I like talking about,” Skinner says.

Jay-Ann Gilfoy
Meridian Credit Union
asset size — $26.6 billion
One of the cooperative values we have is ensuring that all members are welcome. This incites inclusivity, and one way to achieve that is to have representation of women in C-suite positions. And it’s why we’re committed to promoting equality throughout our organization.

Policies and Goals

“One of the cooperative values we have is ensuring that all members are welcome,” Gilfoy adds. “This incites inclusivity, and one way to achieve that is to have representation of women in C-suite positions. And it’s why we’re committed to promoting equality throughout our organization.”

Keeping that commitment requires more than a commitment to friendly banter; it also requires policies that can encourage and measure progress. “Our processes start with the overall governance of the credit union,” Gilfoy says.

“Our board of directors sets goals for themselves as a board overseeing a cooperative financial institution. They work with the CEO and executive team to set policies and goals inside the organization that make it possible for women to be treated equally,” she explains.

To oversee and maintain progress, “we have invested in a diversity, equity inclusion and reconciliation leader who helps us ensure that we are meeting our diversity goals,” Gilfoy adds.

“Having an employee group that focuses on the support and advancement of women is also important. So, we have an approach that looks at the organization from the top down and the bottom up, to ensure that we have the right policies going into place [to encourage equity and diversity] and that these are having an effect within the organization. Others in the credit union system take a similar approach,” she says.

The geographic layout of Canada’s credit union movement is another factor that makes it more welcoming to women who aspire to reach the top, Bester says. “The fact that credit unions have executive teams and leadership that are not just in large urban centers helps pave the way for women leaders who do not necessarily want to reside in Toronto or other major urban centers where banks are typically headquartered.”

Positive Change and Experiences

Bester says things have changed for the better in the 24 years that she has worked in the credit union movement. “When I started my career, it was a different environment than it is today. There weren’t many female CEOs at all within the credit union system then, and credit union boards in general looked very different.”

The journey to the top still requires a lot of determination and support, and even the most dedicated don’t arrive there overnight, Bester adds.

“I had a keen interest in running for the Conexus Credit Union board [in Saskatchewan] for many years before I finally made the decision to go for it.  My role at MNP now is to lead the credit union practice and to work directly with credit unions. I was interested in contributing to the credit union industry in a different way, but to do so, first I had to ensure that I could handle the additional commitment while working full-time and raising my family,” she says.

“When my children reached the age where I thought it was possible, I raised the idea with trusted credit union leaders, and they all encouraged me to pursue it.”

Women who do reach the upper tiers should expect the work to be hard and unpredictable, she adds. “After I got elected, I was excited to contribute to the governance of the credit union system. It turned out to be one of the most challenging times; I joined the board of Conexus Credit Union just at the start of COVID-19 [in early 2020] and completed my three-year term in April 2023.”

“To be honest, it was unintentional for me to get into the credit union space,” says Christine Bergeron, who was president/CEO of $28.4 billion Vancity Credit Union for three years until she stepped down last summer to become CEO of real estate developer Concert Properties. At Vancity, Bergeron found that the building blocks to success included working with a good team and being open to mentors, whether they’re bosses, colleagues or simply staff who have insights and experience to share.

Celina Philpot
Conexus Credit Union
asset size — $6.9 billion
I did all kinds of jobs, including teller, and I kept putting my hand up.

“I joined Vancity to build out an impact investment fund through one of its subsidiaries. The bigger question, I guess, is: What led me to stay with the credit union for a dozen years? It comes down to working with a great group of people and to having the ability to affect change,” Bergeron told the MNP video series

“There are women who influenced me along the way. Early in my career there were not that many women of influence at all, but there are more now. It’s a 360-degree situation; there are also people that report to me who I learn from.”

Women in leadership need to keep focused and grounded. “I keep a quote from [poet Ralph Waldo] Emerson on my desk: ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to change you is the greatest achievement,’” Bergeron says.

CUES member Celina Philpot, CEO of $6.9 billion Conexus Credit Union, told the video series that one of the keys to her success has been to be open to new opportunities that can come from any aspect of the business.

“I started in the credit union movement when I was 19 years old, as a summer job while I was attending the University of Manitoba,” says Philpot in the video. “I did all kinds of jobs, including teller, and I kept putting my hand up. One day I said to my boss that I was thinking of taking a course in project management. I didn’t even know what that was, and she said: ‘Why don’t you find out?’”

The project management course came in handy right away when the credit union she was working for merged and needed people to steer through the combination. “Any opportunity I could get, I was there,” Philpot says.

Advice: Lead With Purpose

“My advice for women pursuing a career at a credit union is to lead with purpose,” Meridian’s CEO Gilfoy says.

“As values-based community organizations, credit unions need leaders who represent this ethos because it is an important competitive differentiator with traditional banks. Having purpose will guide your decision-making and strengthen your resolve as you face new challenges in your career.”

The challenges to women leading in the boardroom will continue even as barriers are overcome, Gilfoy adds. “It’s time to diversify and expand our thinking of what the career path to the C-suite looks like,” she says.

Women who aspire to leadership should seek roles within their credit union where they “are leading a transformation within the organization. There are incredible leadership opportunities and I have seen many women succeed at them,” Gilfoy says.

Female executives should expect and be prepared for more uphill battles, as old-school perceptions of what qualifies people to be CEO still linger. “It’s time to stop hiring CEOs with the exact same resumés,” Gilfoy says.

“Unfortunately, women do not always receive the recognition they deserve for successfully driving incredibly complex and high-risk projects. This needs to change and with it the acknowledgement that leadership talent can emerge from all parts of the business. Being a successful CEO requires a combination of skills and competencies,” she adds. “If we are more proactively cultivating future executives from diverse backgrounds, we will have better success at building a pipeline of talent that better represents our employee and customer base.”

Credit unions in Canada can learn from one another and collaborate on ways to overcome gender bias, Bester says.

“Raising awareness of gender bias is key.  For example, as leaders we sometimes try to ‘help’ our female team members, by trying not to overburden them, recognizing they have family commitments as well. Instead, we should be mentoring them on balancing priorities and not withholding opportunities. We need to recognize that there are ambitious women who can make their own informed decisions that need to have our support and guidance,” she says.

“There is huge opportunity in the sector. Bring your authentic self to whatever your current role is, and make sure you use your voice. Find your support network, and advocates within your credit union, and you will succeed,” Bester says. cues icon

David Israelson is a non-practicing lawyer who writes about Canadian business topics.

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