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The disappearing glass ceiling

Credit unions are at the vanguard when it comes to female leadership

It’s late on a spectacular West Coast afternoon in October, but Tracy Redies’ workday is still far from over.

Redies, president and chief executive officer of British Columbia’s Coast Capital Savings Credit Union, is instead pacing back and forth between the concrete walls of a downtown Victoria hotel room, trying to find the sweet spot in the cellular-reception range that will keep her voice, scratchy from a recent bout of laryngitis, from fading out on a call.

“Can you hear me now?” she asks before picking up the threads on a comical story about life as a working mom that had, moments earlier, been disrupted by a sudden service glitch.

It involves her daughter, one of Redies’ four children, some gym clothes that didn’t get washed in time for an important school event and a can of Febreze odour-eliminating spray. Not exactly a mother-of-the-year moment, but the memory of it still makes her laugh out loud. “You have to have a good sense of humor about these things,” she says.

Rising to the top

The story is meant as a lesson in accepting one’s human limitations in the face of near-impossible demands. It’s a topic Redies, 52, often talks about in her dual – and sometimes duelling – roles as parent and head of British Columbia’s second-largest financial services cooperative, which has 504,000 members and $12.6 billion in assets under administration. But it also reveals plenty more about the speaker herself and just what is possible for a woman armed with the right combination of ambition, confidence and capability (not to mention a penchant for turning trial into triumph). It’s true that as the leader of a major financial institution, Redies is still considered a rare breed. In fact, some enterprises have been so resistant to gender diversity that the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC), Canada’s largest regulator, has taken note. The commission has recommended to the province that companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange now be asked to disclose how they plan to increase the number of women in senior positions.

The voluntary policy is meant to encourage publicly traded companies to report their progress every year. They can even be questioned if they refuse to do so.

Some enterprises have been so resistant to gender diversity that the Ontario Securities Commission has taken note.

Redies is one of the small but growing number of Canadian women rising to the top within an industry that traditionally has not been very female friendly. That she and others in this elite group, including Tamara Vrooman of Vancouver City Savings, Launi Skinner of First West, and Monique Leroux of the Montreal-based Desjardins Group, among others, found success within the cooperative arena is no coincidence. Co-ops by their very nature are structured to encourage participation of members, with a considerable emphasis put on community building and critical sustainability issues that extend well beyond the bottom line.

It’s not surprising, then, to find that the proportion of women who hold C-suite-level positions within co-ops and credit unions, big and small, is notably higher than the norm for other types of business models.

Women and boards

Breaching the boards

Indeed, there are twice as many women on executive boards within Canadian cooperatives than in the corporate sector, according to a 2009 study examining governance models. The study, by the Canadian Cooperative Association, found 27 per cent of cooperative board positions are occupied by women compared to 14 per cent in the corporate sector. In the public sector, the percentage is closer to 20.

True, corporations have signalled an interest in closing the gender gap, with Canada’s largest financial institution, Royal Bank of Canada, becoming the first of the Big Five to appoint a woman as chair of the board. Kathleen Taylor, the former chief executive of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, is slated to take on the role this month. But it’s proving difficult to keep pace with the cooperative momentum.

Globally, membership in cooperatives continues to expand led in large part by women in developing countries newly empowered and eager to address some of the world’s most pressing issues around poverty, food security and health care. Closer to home, Vancity recently earned the highest ranking for gender representation in the country by Corporate Knights magazine. Nearly 67 per cent of the seats around the board table are occupied by women at Vancity, which has over $17 billion in assets under administration and close to half a million members.

So unusual is the situation, it’s spawned a bit of an insider’s joke. “I might be the only CEO in the country who is looking for a few good men,” says Vancity CEO Vrooman, 45.

Over at Desjardins Group, headquartered in Montreal, Monique Leroux is gearing up for a busy day. As head of the country’s largest financial services cooperative – with $196.7 billion in assets and 5.6 million members – Leroux, 59, has a lot on her plate. But she’s eager to talk about gender balance and the important role cooperatives in Canada and abroad can play to encourage more women leaders.

“I am busy, but these are things that are important to me,” she says. Leroux has been a trailblazer within Canada’s finance sector since she landed her first job post-graduation at an accounting firm (now Ernst & Young) in the 1980s. She’s gone on to chalk up a number of impressive career firsts: the first woman in the country to become a partner in an accounting firm in 1988; the first female chief financial officer of Desjardins Group in 2004; and its first female president, CEO and board chair in 2008.

Leroux takes her high profile as a leader seriously. Among the many responsibilities the title brings, she views it as a means to encourage many more women up the career ladder. As a member of the Catalyst Canada Advisory Board, she firmly believes gender diversity is good for business. Catalyst research shows companies with the most women on boards outperform those with the least on return-on-sales and return-oninvested capital. Organizations with three or more female board directors over several years “significantly” outperform those with no women.

Gender diversity an asset

More broadly, Leroux believes gender diversity is good for the world. “I think in all of society, where women have a strong role to play or have the possibility of contributing as much or as well as men, these are generally better societies,” she says.

board comparison by gender

At Desjardins, Leroux has set ambitious targets to push the number of female senior executives within the organization up from its current level of 30 per cent to 35 or even 45 per cent over the next few years. The organization has also committed to boosting the percentage of women elected to its boards from 35 per cent to 40 per cent by 2018, in line with Catalyst Canada recommendations. The proposed changes haven’t come without resistance. Some in Leroux’s team have questioned whether it’s possible to find the number of qualified women to fill the leadership positions, and just how best to identify and mentor the right candidates. Leroux, however, shares no such doubts. “Maybe it was not possible a few years ago, but that is not the case anymore,” she says, noting the record-high numbers of women graduating in fields of business, accounting and finance. “There is no reason why you cannot have a large pool of confident women.”

A ‘triple-bottom line’

Recruiting women to Vancity is not an issue Tamara Vrooman can relate to. Of the credit union’s eight-member executive management team, women hold five spots, while five members of the nine-member board are women. Vrooman, 45, herself has been at the credit union’s helm since 2007 following a successful career in public service, which included a three-year stint as deputy minister of finance for British Columbia. It was the organization’s “triple-bottom line” – that is, an equal commitment to financial, social and environmental sustainability – that attracted her to the job. It’s what holds her there, still.

“I am very lucky to lead the organization I lead. Vancity is a fantastic credit union with a great history and a bright future,” she says in a telephone interview from Vancouver. Vancity was the first credit union to lend to women without a male co-signer. As well, for years, it was the only financial institution to have a presence in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, often acknowledged as the poorest community in the country. In 2011, it became the largest organization in Canada to adopt a living-wage policy, guaranteeing its employees a wage that reflects a minimum income that a family needs to meet its basic needs. The credit union has earned just about every business accolade there is, including this year’s title of best corporate citizen “outspoken supporter of social and environmental causes,” according to Corporate Knights. “We put our money where our mouth is,” Vrooman says.

A family friendly workplace

Vancity’s commitment to diversity is part of that same equation. Whether it’s gender, age, abled and disabled, the credit union mindfully seeks to strike a balance in its employee mix to best reflect its membership. That, in combination with innovative and family-friendly workplace policies that help employees achieve a stronger work-life balance, keep the credit union competitive when it comes to attracting the country’s best and brightest. These are the points women often comment favourably upon during interviews, Vrooman says. “We pay attention to the things that are important to them.”

A brand to take pride in

Redies says she’s often asked by women’s advocacy groups to submit Coast Capital Savings’ name for awards and citations in recognition of programs that mentor and support women to reach the senior ranks. Half of the senior executives at Coast Capital are women, as is 40 per cent of its operating management team. On the board, women represent 30 per cent of elected positions. The problem with the awards is no such overt programs exist at the moment. “We don’t do that,”
Redies says.

Redies’ approach since she took on the CEO role in 2008 has been to build a brand employees and members can trust and take pride in. That includes a broader definition of success than straight profit. “We have to inspire people to want to work for our organizations. People need to feel it is a passion, something they really value, and I think women are even more demanding on that front than men,” she says. ◊