What Does It Mean to Be the First Woman in the C-Suite?

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On International Women’s Day, professional services firm Grant Thornton released its 20th annual report on the state of women in senior-ranking positions at mid-market companies around the world. It surveyed 5,000 executives at companies with valuations between US$100 million and US$4 billion. Findings revealed that progress in the promoting of women to leadership roles over the past two decades has been slow at best—and when it comes to the C-suite, frankly, pretty dire. In the past year, the global percentage of CEOs who are women dropped from 28 per cent to 19 per cent.

Following a trend noted at the world’s top corporations, many of the women CEOs at these mid-market firms left of their own accord. The reasons cited point to an unsettling truth: Not only is the climb to the top an against-the-odds feat but once women arrive there, they often face a psychologically unsafe environment that makes performing in their roles untenable.

In Canada, women make up 10 per cent of executive officer jobs, marking a record high. But less than two per cent of those women are BIPOC. Compared to the global trend, it is at least moving in the right direction here. While we have such a long way to go, the road map is clear. Grant Thornton’s report found that we can pave the way to parity by focusing on three key factors that impact women’s ability to thrive in leadership positions: a commitment from those in the C-suite to sponsor women for growth opportunities; a clear and measurable DEI strategy; and, crucially, greater flexibility—businesses with hybrid or flexible work models statistically have more women in senior roles.

We spoke to six Canadian CEOs who are the first women to hold the top position in their companies’ history. A common theme in their stories is their dedication to enacting change within their organizations—and industries at large—to ensure that more women are promoted to senior positions. Herein lies the
conundrum but also the solution: We need more women at the top in order to promote more women to the top.


Justine Hendricks (Photograph: Alexa Mazzarello, Makeup: Anthonia Bejide)

Justine Hendricks

Farm Credit Canada

Title: President and CEO

Years in Job: 1.5

Location: Ottawa

I’m a problem-solver at heart. I started my career in the banking sector, and I fell in love with the process of helping customers. I began to grasp the profound impact I could have during their pivotal life moments by offering knowledge and guidance.

For most of my career, I’ve been a single mother. I have three daughters: an 18-year-old and 14-year-old twins. Balancing the demands of work and motherhood hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve learned that the quality of the time you spend with your family is what matters most.

You know the saying “It takes a village to raise a child?” I’m probably the poster child for that. Friends and family have played and continue to play a very important role in our lives. I’ve also made it a priority to involve my girls not only in my work but also in my interests outside of work. I hope that inspires them too.

I joined Farm Credit Canada in January 2023. I see endless opportunities for growth and change within the agriculture and food industry. I’m happy, at the end of the day, if I’ve solved a problem. It doesn’t have to be the biggest problem, but if I help unblock something or push us closer to a solution, that fuels me each and every day. I believe we have the potential to address the world’s most pressing problems, from world hunger to climate challenges.

Women have always been an integral part of farming in Canada, and it’s exciting to see more women move into leadership roles and take seats at the board level. We are now sitting where decisions are being made. I am confident that we will continue to see women rise to the top ranks of agriculture and food in Canada, because there is a need for our skills, passion and fresh ideas.

It is important to have examples and role models for other women to look to; that will make a difference. FCC has dedicated events and resources to help women at any level achieve their entrepreneurship and leadership goals.

I think sometimes when women get an adverse reaction, they respond by pushing themselves to do 125 per cent. But you’ve got to stop and reflect: What’s important is to be comfortable with who you are, to be true to who you are and to do things with integrity. You don’t always have to surpass others just because you think that that’s the only way you will ever be seen as an equal.

As a woman leader and visible minority, I’ve faced certain biases and obstacles over my career. I’m not necessarily what someone pictures when they see the name Justine Hendricks. There’s an element of surprise for some. I can tell from people’s reactions when I enter a room that what they see is not
necessarily what they expected. And you can just see how they have to internally adjust.

During my first 12 months as CEO of FCC, I met over 500 individuals and stakeholders and farmers and producers, and, looking back, I can honestly say I was welcomed with open arms by this industry.

I feel like I belong here. I invested in reaching out and connecting with everything that I had, and with authenticity, and the industry has accepted and embraced me in return. That’s an environment where I know I can thrive.


Meghan Roach, president and CEO of Roots
Meghan Roach (Photograph: May Truong, Hair and Makeup: Alanna Chelmick)

Meghan Roach

Roots

Title: President and CEO

Years in Job: 4.5

Location: Toronto

My family was really influential in shaping my career path. I have two sisters and a brother. My parents always told my sisters and me that we could do anything as women, and that is something that has stayed with me all my life.

I became a passionate investor early on, thanks to my grandfather. He gave me my first stock when I was 12 and continued buying me stocks for the rest of his life until he passed away in 2021. I knew I wanted to do something related to investments, so I started my career in private equity. After doing my MBA at the University of Oxford, I joined Searchlight Capital Partners in London, U.K. Then I had my first child and came back to Canada to work at the fund’s Toronto office.

Searchlight acquired Roots in 2015, and in 2019 I jumped in as the company’s interim CFO. I had only been in the role for a couple of months when the board decided to search for a new CEO. They told me I should think about taking the job.

At that time, I hadn’t really considered moving to the operations side. When I was at university, there weren’t a lot of female CEOs that I knew about. So I didn’t necessarily think about that pathway as something that was possible for me. But working closely with the Roots team as interim CFO, I realized that I loved getting up every day and going to the office to think about the next thing we could do or the next opportunity we could get involved with.

One of the first things I wanted to do as CEO was re-establish Roots’ premium-brand status, a mission that included hiring a chief product officer and creative director. We partnered with new collaborators and saw a massive increase in our gross margins. Later on, we made the shift to manufacturing 85 per cent of our products with sustainable materials and launched one of the first gender-free product categories with extended sizing in Canada.

At Roots, we try to promote women into leadership roles. Every time you put one woman forward, that moves women as a group forward. It’s important for us to think about how we support each other. I try to mentor and help women who are looking at similar paths—I want them to be able to see themselves in these roles in the future because they have examples that have come before them.

It’s important for women in leadership positions to talk more openly about the challenges we face. I’m a mother to two little kids, I’m a CEO and my husband works full-time. It’s not easy to balance all these things.

It’s a barrier to women to think we need to be “perfect enough” to take on a big role. The reality is that none of us are perfect. We have to show that it’s okay not to be and it’s okay to find things difficult. We can work on weaknesses and continue to learn and grow.


Kelly Schmitt, CEO of Benevity
Kelly Schmitt (Photograph: Mecoh Bain)

Kelly Schmitt

Benevity

Title: CEO

Years in Job: 3.5

Location: Calgary

I spent my early career in corporate finance and the oil and gas industry. Coming up, I was typically the only woman in the room at almost every meeting and encounter. Then, in 2007, I joined Smart Technologies, a learning-tools company, as treasurer. It had a 10-person executive team and five were women, including the CEO and the CFO, which is one of the reasons I felt compelled to make the move from the energy sector to tech.

After helping take Smart public in 2010, I became the CFO at Solium Capital, now Shareworks by Morgan Stanley. Eight years later, I was approached by Benevity’s founder and CEO, Bryan de Lottinville, when the company was looking to uplevel its CFO.

Soon after, Bryan told me he was looking for his successor. My first reaction was, “Don’t look here, man. That is not me.” I never wanted to be the person in front of clients doing sales. I loved being the number two.

I was holding myself back. I think men typically look at job qualifications, and if they meet two of the 10, they’ll be like, “I’m good to go.” And I think women tend to find a lot of reasons why they’re not qualified. Meanwhile, Smart Technologies and Solium Capital had both hit unicorn status while I was there.

Neither of the CEOs we hired externally for Benevity lasted long. Meanwhile, I had learned a lot more about the role—that the CEO job is about people and culture. And I cared so much about Benevity’s mission and the people who work there. So that’s what ultimately made me decide to take the plunge—I thought, “I could do this, and do it better.”

I actually think my career claim to fame, though, is that I birthed both of my kids as a CFO and took eight months of maternity leave with each of them. The world didn’t end, and the companies didn’t go out of business.

I think the biggest thing that’s holding women back from leadership roles is that it’s still the woman who bears the majority of the responsibility for raising children. I look at companies that have mandated that people come back to the office five days a week, and it hurts the careers of people who are the primary caregivers, which is still most often women. At Benevity, we’re flexible in the way we work and provide a progressive parental-leave program for both parents. Recently, I’ve also been reading about the impact menopause has on women in the workplace. It’s a huge thing; you can’t sleep and you’re having all these issues, and it’s something we never talk about at work.

We also need more sponsorship—not just mentorship—for women. That means kicking down doors and actively advocating for women’s careers throughout the company. We have to do the hard work to develop people, promote them and support them so they succeed.

In my time as CEO, I’ve promoted three women to the C-suite from within the company. The average representation of women at a tech company is 28 per cent, but at Benevity it’s 55 per cent, and two-thirds of our executive team are women.

We need to have these types of conversations—and I’ve been using my platform to try to make sure we have them.


An Verhulst-Santos, president and CEO of L’Oréal Canada
An Verhulst-Santos (Photograph: Melissa Gamache)

An Verhulst-Santos

L’Oréal Canada

Title: President and CEO

Years in Job: 3

Location: Montreal

My very first job was at L’Oréal. I started there as a product manager on Kérastase, a brand within our professional-product division, 33 years ago in Belgium, where I was born.

I became the first woman CEO of L’Oréal Canada in June 2021. One of the first things I did in the role was create the position of chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, currently held by Marie-Evelyne François. The more diverse a team is, the more creative and ambitious they are—and that leads to greater and more profound results for the whole company.

Historically, the cosmetics industry has been responsible for certain beauty standards that fail to accurately represent the global population. We’re trying to change that. Today, all of the brands within the L’Oréal group strive to represent a wide range of ethnicities, ages and gender identities in their campaigns and offer products for different skin tones, hair types and beauty preferences.

But it’s important to not stop there. By actively participating in ongoing discussions and supporting new initiatives that promote inclusivity, we improve the industry as whole. It’s important for me to be a part of that evolution.

I often get asked, “What advice would you give other women in business?” And I’m sometimes disheartened to see how many ambitious women lack confidence to go after what they want—and deserve. Since arriving here, I’ve found Canada to be a vibrant and diverse market, and I consider myself lucky to be part of a team that celebrates inclusion and creativity. But statistics show that isn’t the reality for most. So the advice I would like to give is: Don’t put up additional barriers. Have faith in your strengths and speak up. You need to be true to yourself, because if you aren’t, it will be hard to influence others to trust you. People want to invest in someone who fully believes in what she does.

Related: How Do I Push Past My Imposter Syndrome and Get the Job Done?

Having work-life balance as a leader is also key, and I try to lead by example. For me, it isn’t just about managing time; it’s about nurturing fulfillment and a sense of purpose both in and outside of work. It’s about making myself available for what matters most. To help make this possible for our team, we recently doubled mental-health coverage and introduced unlimited sick and personal days so employees can better balance their responsibilities and accommodate unforeseen events in a way that works for them and the business.

We want everyone to feel supported at work and at home. As a mother of two teenagers, I know that the time I spend with my kids is so important. And discovering the world through their eyes is extremely enriching—they open my mind and encourage me to ask questions, and that makes me a better leader.


Kim Brooks, president and vice-chancellor of Dalhousie University
Kim Brooks (Photograph: Carolina Andrade)

Kim Brooks

Dalhousie University

Title: President and Vice-chancellor

Years in Job: 1

Location: Halifax

Coming up in my career in the ’90s, I experienced moments of exclusion that other women and gay people can relate to. I’ve been underestimated. I’ve had men repeat my ideas in meetings and take credit. And I’ve felt like I’ve had to conform to a conventional way of dressing. In the past, I expended a lot of energy on making other people feel comfortable, even to the extreme of not mentioning my partner in a work setting. Today, I feel confident showing up how I want and saying what I want.

But those challenges are still pervasive and continue to be a deterrent for many women with ambitions of making it into the C-suite. When I think about a diverse workforce, I think of how that adds to the richness of decision-making at an organization, and I’m consistently a cheerleader for having more women, queer people and racialized people come on board at Dalhousie.

I think it’s important that students see people who may have a similar life path to them assume leadership positions. It’s affirming when a woman—especially a gay woman—becomes president of a university. It lets them know that this is a doable accomplishment.

As the first female and openly queer president of Dalhousie, I bring a different background to the role as well as a fresh set of eyes to tackle various institutional challenges persistent in the university sector. I’ve been explicit in leading a strategy around mentoring students from a range of backgrounds. We want to leverage their talents to give them the support they need, recognizing that it isn’t just about elevating a woman to a leadership position and hoping for the best. We need intentionally inclusive workplaces for the next generation.

The conversation in the boardroom gets more interesting when you have different voices. If it’s the same four or five people with similar backgrounds making decisions for the next 20 years, nothing will change. Dalhousie’s leadership team should reflect a diverse range of communities—including rural Nova Scotians and those from low-income families.

We’re aware of the progress we’ve made in certain departments, like how more than half of the students in the law school are women. But we still have gaps, such as how few Black students enrol in the medical school. We’re working to change that through outreach to students, assisting them with their applications and ensuring that the application process isn’t biased.

And once marginalized students come into those programs, we want to ensure that their time with us is successful. We’ve instilled solid mentorship programs and created cohort circles so they can see themselves reflected in the student body.

I love this job because the challenges are exciting to me. And I’m passionate about driving the right change.


Jennifer Publicover, executive VP and CEO of RBC Insurance
Jennifer Publicover (Photograph: May Truong, Hair and Makeup: Alanna Chelmick)

Jennifer Publicover

RBC Insurance

Title: Executive VP and CEO

Years in Job: 1.5

Location: Toronto

My dad was an investment adviser. I remember going into his office as a kid, and they didn’t have computers; they had a ticker machine on the floor. He introduced me to the world of markets, and I bought my first stock when I was five or six years old. And guess what stock it was? RBC.

I spent most of my career at Morgan Stanley in various roles. Sometimes when you grow up within an organization, it can be hard to convince those around you that you’ve evolved and are ready for further advancement. When I was up for managing director, I didn’t get the job, and the feedback I received wasn’t that I’d done the wrong thing or that I’d been lazy; it was that I wasn’t doing enough of what the guys were doing, like networking and promoting themselves. Meanwhile, I had my head down and was always working while also trying to balance the needs of my young family. I remember being devastated by that feedback.

After leaving Morgan Stanley, I spent three years running strategy and products for wealth management at RBC. To be honest, I wasn’t necessarily looking to be the CEO. But our last board chair, Kathleen Taylor, was very passionate about finding opportunities for women.

The first time I presented to the board of RBC, people around the table were sending me notes that said “You’ve got this; you’re gonna do a great job.” I didn’t experience that kind of support when I worked in the U.S. or in Europe, where there seemed to be deep-rooted views of women.

I’ve never had the sense that I shouldn’t be here. Still, for a long time in my career, I wasn’t great at saying what I wanted. Was I getting paid right? Was I getting the right assignments? But I’ve gotten more deliberate in advocating for myself, and my confidence in terms of what I bring to the table has increased.

I wish we had more women running companies in Canada. It’s good for business. Women tend to solicit a very broad set of stakeholders for feedback, which typically leads to more optimal decisions being made with more complete information. Women are also very comfortable making tough decisions, particularly when the interests of the collective are at stake.

I’m a big believer in setting bold goals. When I became CEO, I and my senior leadership team recognized that to grow our business and win in the future, we would need a much more ambitious strategy. That really energized and excited the team. We’re in an environment where change is happening so fast, and incrementalism is just not going to work. Setting bold goals—and then giving people the belief that they can achieve them—is the most important thing you can do as a leader.

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