Women at the Top

When Sophie Brochu started out in the energy sector some 30-odd years ago, she was one of few women at the Société québécoise d’initiatives pétrolières. Armed with a degree in economics and a passion for the industry, the future Order of Canada recipient began her career when “she’s one of the boys” was something to strive for.

Sophie Brochu, President and Chief Executive Officer of Énergir Inc. Photo courtesy of Énergir Inc.

Not really. That’s the worse thing that can happen to a woman, says Brochu, President and Chief Executive Officer of Énergir (formerly Gaz Métro).  “It used to be acceptable, it used to work, but it doesn’t work anymore. The idea is not to become a man – or for a man to become a woman – but to welcome and be yourself and not be afraid of bringing your own colour to a rainbow that requires the diversity of colours.”

Diversity, specifically gender diversity at the executive and board level, is a trending business topic that has been decades in the making. While women have not always been represented on executive boards, analysts – and stakeholders – now recognize diversity of thought, perspective and opinion at a decision-making level is critical for performance and innovation.

The Canadian Gas Association’s Board of Directors stands out as an example of gender diversity in a male-dominated industry. Five of the 10 directors are women, including Brochu, and Board Chair Leigh Ann Shoji-Lee, President of Pacific Northern Gas Ltd.

Shoji-Lee doesn’t see herself as a trailblazer, despite having been the first female vice president of operations and engineering at Union Gas and Senior Vice President of Field Operations for BC Hydro. For the mechanical engineer, leadership is more about what she can do to help the organizations and the people they serve than her gender.

“I do think that women have a different perspective on issues,” the Chatham, Ontario native says. “I don’t want to be stereotypical, but women tend to be more collaborative, have better listening skills, definitely have different experiences. And it’s more about bringing the different experiences, ideas and perspectives to the table. And having more women at the table will bring that.”

Getting there continues to be a challenge

Although there has been movement to support gender diversity on boards, through policies or guidelines, the actual number of women in leadership positions in Canadian corporations has scarcely increased in the last decade. Two-thirds of publicly traded Canadian companies have at least one woman on their boards, but females occupy only 15 per cent of all board seats, according to a September 2018 report by Canadian securities regulators. This is up marginally from 11 per cent in 2014.

And intent has proven not enough to make a change: while companies that adopted targets for the representation of women on their boards have more than doubled, that spike represents a mere 16 per cent of publicly traded companies in Canada. But say “quota” and many cringe.

Leigh Ann Shoji-Lee, President of Pacific Northern Gas Ltd. Photo courtesy of PNG.

Although the numbers show progress – companies targeting women on their boards had on average 24 per cent female directors, compared to 13 per cent among companies without targets – nobody wants to be promoted based on policy rather than ability – or be perceived as such. Shoji-Lee recalls finding out Union Gas had specifically targeted women candidates for her first position, an uncomfortable realization she reconciled with as giving her the opportunity to be at the table. “But I had to display that I deserved to stay there. So I worked hard to prove that I earned the right to stay there,” she says.

At TC Energy Corporation (formerly TransCanada), 27 per cent of the leadership at all levels and 25 per cent of the board are women. “We’re moving in the right direction, and we’re seeing the numbers respond by asking the right questions and doing the right things,” says CGA board member Tracy Robinson, Executive Vice-President and President, Canadian Natural Gas Pipelines, TC Energy Corporation.

Tracy Robinson, Executive Vice-President and President, Canadian Natural Gas Pipelines, TC Energy Corporation. Photo courtesy of TC Energy Corporation.

The numbers are slow to come around, without a doubt, but we are seeing more diversity, she says. “The benefit of a discussion on quotas is that it opens the discussion of ‘what would it take?’ If we imagine a world of 50 per cent, what are we doing to get these candidates ready?

Purposeful Support

Robinson sees investing in capabilities through a variety of experiences, exposure, and education as well as some specific mentoring for women and members of visible minority groups as necessary to take us to the next level.  “It doesn’t always happen organically, that change, it is something that we all need to be purposeful about, in creating the right candidates and allowing people from all backgrounds to put themselves in a position to succeed.”

A focus on development also battles an often-used argument against instituting policies that maintains there aren’t enough qualified women and having quotas would negatively affect an organization. To meet the challenge, a group of highly qualified women once put together a profile package, promoting their skills to CEOs and boards across Canada saying “we are out here,” recalls Jay Grewal, President and CEO of Manitoba Hydro. “I would ask the question “do men have to do that?”

Jay Grewal, President and CEO of Manitoba Hydro. Photo courtesy of Manitoba Hydro.

Grewal was surprised about the media attention her gender received when she took over leadership of the Crown corporation in January. With more and more women taking on executive roles in corporations across the country, she didn’t expect being the first female CEO of the provincial utility to take the spotlight over her abilities.

“In all roles, it’s been demonstrated that a diversity of perspective, along with different individual frameworks for how you think through issues and problems is always helpful. And if that helps a board arrive at better decisions, better solutions, better support for management, absolutely that is how a board should be staffed,” she says.

The former CEO of Northwest Territories Power Corporation who has held executive roles with organizations like CIBC World Markets, BC Hydro and Accenture Inc., believes direction from the top will support more women entering non-traditional roles through mentorship and sponsorship.  “The reality is we don’t have enough women in leading core, big operational groups – generation, transmission, distribution,” Grewal notes. “Unfortunately, women are still predominantly represented in the support areas – HR, finance, legal. As women are more broadly represented in all parts of the business it may potentially increase the number of women on boards.”

Policies and Mentorship

CGA Board member Malini Giridhar, Vice-President, Business Development and Regulatory, Enbridge Gas Inc., can remember when there was only one woman on the executive team at Enbridge Gas  – just four years ago. Today, she notes that half are women as a result of shifting how leadership competencies are seen – thought leadership, execution, people and personal leadership – as well as focusing on diversity and inclusion.

Malini Giridhar, Vice-President, Business Development and Regulatory, Enbridge Gas Inc. Photo courtesy of Enbridge Gas Inc.

“Polices are important because without policies you have no way of calling out unconscious bias. And we all have unconscious biases,” Giridhar says. The concerted process Enbridge Gas undertook has helped elevate a broader group of candidates for leadership development and ultimately leadership roles, she says – with a proviso.

“Just because we have more women at the executive level of leadership doesn’t mean we have reached our final stage because at other levels of leadership we still see a very skewed representation. We are by no means done.

“Mentorship and sponsorship are critical for women to get exposure and opportunities.”

“But what is encouraging is that we’ve done a number of things that has allowed us to look at diversity more broadly. Just valuing diversity and recognizing that leadership at senior levels is about how you engage and deliver to large, complex teams helps the case.”

Mentorship and sponsorship are critical for women to get exposure and opportunities, although many leaders point out sponsorship – where a leader actively speaks positively about someone – can take you further. “That having someone who broadly supports and advocates for you and who takes that leap of faith to say “You maynot have the experience to do this, but I believe you have the capability and the potential, so what do we need to do to support you in taking this on, are you interested. That’s huge,” says Grewal.

Succeeding

Today’s business environment is not a meritocracy, a difficult awakening for women joining the workforce after having worked hard and excelled academically. To succeed, women have to participate, get themselves noticed, take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way, veterans advise.

“What I say the most is ground yourself in who you really are, listen to those inner voices and grab every opportunity that walks by you,” Robinson says. “The best experiences in my career have been the ones I didn’t expect to happen. Over your career, find ways to build a portfolio of unique experiences and put yourself fully into every single one of them.  And it will happen.”

For Brochu, having a confident mental stance is important as many women need to believe more in their competencies and better pitch themselves when applying for job opportunities. “My belief is that women need to know themselves to be able to make changes in their business and enterprise and to change society. But it starts with them. Have a confident mental posture, know when it’s time to play to not to lose and when it’s time to play to win, and do more of the latter and less of the former.”

Dina O’Meara has been covering Canadian energy issues for almost 20 years.