With its stone chimneys and wooden verandas in the Queen Anne Revival style, the house that Thomas Willson, the Ontario inventor and industrialist, built on a cliff overlooking Meech Lake north of Ottawa a century ago is a grand, rustic summer estate. In the middle of May, the house, now federally owned, welcomed a gathering worthy of its grandeur. Cabinet ministers included Bill Morneau, finance; Amarjeet Sohi, infrastructure; MaryAnn Mihychuk, employment; Navdeep Bains, innovation; and Chrystia Freeland, international trade.
The ministers came to meet Morneau’s economic advisers, a group that includes two PhDs in chemistry, two venture-capital gurus based in Silicon Valley, the chief economist of the World Economic Forum, and a consultant from a First Nation on the north tip of Vancouver Island known for success in aboriginal economic development. Oh, and it just so happens that everyone on that list is a woman.
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When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his majority-women cabinet last year, some dismissed the move as window dressing. Politicians, after all, are the people on stage — the actors who mouth other people’s thoughts. Then Morneau named his Advisory Council on Economic Growth, whom he asked for a strategy, given our aging population, “to provide higher living standards and greater opportunity for the middle class.”
Morneau chose eight women and six men for this elite group of advisers who met at Meech Lake. This gender balance suggests something more radical. Economic advisers are the puppet masters: they decide what strings to pull, and make the big decisions about what moves would benefit the country. To put more women than men on a group of policy wonks in the backroom suggests, quite simply, that women are the best economic advisers around.
“There was a real effort to find people with different perspectives,” says Suzanne Fortier, principal of Montreal’s McGill University and an advisory council member, who studies artificial intelligence methodologies for protein structure determination. “If the search process is broader, you will get the names.”
By casting a wide net, Morneau appears to have found the best and brightest — the majority of whom just happen to be women. For example, Katherine Barr grew up jumping horses on the farm of Ian Miller, the equestrian Olympian, in Perth, Ont. The mother of two is now a general partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures and managing director at Wildcat Venture Partners, both early stage technology venture firms based in Silicon Valley. Married to a fellow Canadian she met in California, she also helped found C100, which connects Canadian tech startups with U.S. venture capital, and sits on the board of Communitech, a Waterloo, Ont.-based organization that helps entrepreneurs.
Barr may live far away from Ottawa, and the $1 per year she gets for her work on Morneau’s council translates to just 75¢ U.S., but she calls it an “honour” to do her bit to help Canada become more outward-looking. “When we first got C100 off the ground, we were accused of being a brain drain,” she says. “I think that’s really small-minded thinking. We call ourselves more like a bridge. Why isn’t Canada better positioned to leverage the expats living around the world, to increase prosperity and to increase connection globally? To me, it’s this amazing connection that all the Canadian expats offer — we call it a brain flow for people and ideas and business to flow between Canada and places like Silicon Valley.”
The growth council, Barr adds, “is a massive commitment. It’s been an incredible amount of hours that has gone into that.” But she, like the other women on the council who spoke to FPM, downplays the gender issue; they prefer to emphasize the talent of all the members. Gender politics only come up in this story because, while governments appear to believe in the power of women to solve economic problems, Bay Street has yet to get the memo.
Women occupy just 12% of all the seats on the boards of publicly traded companies in Canada. Last year, just 76, or 15%, of the 521 board seats that changed hands went to women — even after most of Canada’s securities regulators began a push to increase women on boards. The regulators have not set a hard goal, but the powerful Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan has suggested all companies should have at least three women on their board by 2020 or face delisting from the stock exchange.
Maureen Jensen, the first female CEO of the Ontario Securities Commission, Canada’s largest stock-market regulator, called the small number of women appointed to boards in the past year “confounding” in a September speech to Bay Street. “Without an improvement here, we will never reach 30% female board representation,” she told a room full of executives.
Resistance to women on boards puzzles Anne-Marie Hubert, who runs Ernst & Young in Quebec, since companies with more women on the board outperform those with fewer women. But companies lack courage, or are just more comfortable with men, she says. “The guys are used to taking another guy out after work for a beer to tell him the rules of the game. But a 50-year-old man can’t take a 35-year-old woman out for a beer. It wouldn’t look good.”
Outside corporate boardrooms, though, women are rising more quickly: five of the 23 members on the Conference Board of Canada are women; the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board counts five women among its 12 members; and the Business/Higher Education Roundtable, which tries to strengthen co-operation between employers and educators, has 10 women among its 27 members. You’ll also find a higher percentage of women on many provincial economic advisory teams than in corporate C-suites.
Marie Bountrogianni, a psychologist and former Ontario cabinet minister who now runs continuing education at Ryerson University in Toronto, says government and academe these days offer more flexibility to accommodate, say, parents raising children. “My financial chief [a man] does kid duty one day a week,” she notes. Giving men more freedom to look after kids takes away the stigma of women doing the same, and frees women up to do more demanding jobs. Hubert says Ernst & Young changed its parental leave policy to encourage men to stay home with young children. “The first man who did it was named a partner while he was on parental leave.”
Canada’s business culture, however, is generally more conservative than academe or government. That conservatism helped Canada weather the 2008 economic crisis, but also means companies don’t promote women. Jensen, a geologist by training who made her career in Canada’s mining sector, wants Bay Street to harness the value of women in senior roles to become more competitive. “We don’t have enough access to skilled manpower in this country,” she said recently, sitting in a boardroom on the 20th floor of a Toronto office tower. “We are a small economy, comparatively. And so if you take 50% of the population and move them to the side, you’ve really just reduced your ability to recruit dramatically.”
Jensen applauds Morneau for the composition of the federal growth council. “It’s very inspirational and it’s very deliberate,” she says. “People are looking at that and saying, ‘Finally we are seeing some progress, we are seeing some leadership right from the top that this is an important issue. And everyone has taken notice of that.”
François-Philippe Champagne, elected last year as a Liberal MP for Saint-Maurice—Champlain in Quebec, is parliamentary secretary to Morneau. Champagne, who spent his career in executive roles with multinationals in Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, says governments need economic advice from smart women. “We tried to look at people who can bring us big, bold ideas,” he says. “Not all the thoughts are here in Ottawa. We really need to branch out.
“I’m 46,” he adds. “I come from a generation where there were more women than men in my law school class. If the minister of finance can showcase women who are leaders in civil society and in business, hopefully we will lead by example and big corporations will bring in more gender balance. When you have women engaged fully in shaping our future, you get some of the best outcomes.”
Another advisory council member is Carol Anne Hilton, CEO of Transformation International, a Vancouver-based company that helps First Nations develop government and administration systems, and to connect with capital. Hilton, who grew up in a settlement of the Nuu chah nulth nation on northern Vancouver Island, holds an MBA from the University of Hertfordshire in England. She now has a home in Victoria, an office in Vancouver, and appears to spend her life on airplanes. She says she brings a message of hope to the council: Canada’s First Nations are a huge potential force of talent and capital ready to work and invest in forestry, agriculture, aquaculture and manufacturing.
“There is a need for Canadians to begin to understand the size of the emerging aboriginal economy and its importance to Canada,” says Hilton, speaking after she met a client in Fort McMurray, Alta. “Are we looking at a $100-billion aboriginal economy? There is a high productivity of business enterprises from First Nations, Métis and Inuit. How do we support that?” As part of the growth council’s fact-finding process, Hilton held two roundtables this year, in Toronto and in Vancouver, with aboriginal business leaders. “We heard a lot around the need for investment and inclusion,” she says.
For Hilton, the challenge hits close to home. In 2014, Canada’s Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings that affirm her First Nations’ fishing rights. Even so, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans still will not negotiate, she says. “A fundamental shift has to happen in thinking to create a balance in Canada for social and economic development for Inuit, First Nations and Métis.”
Other women on the council include Elyse Allan, CEO of General Electric Canada; Jennifer Blanke, chief economist at the World Economic Forum (an American who lives in Geneva); Carol Lee, CEO of Linacare Cosmetherapy Inc.; and Ilse Treurnicht, a Rhodes scholar from Oxford of South African origin, who runs the MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub in Toronto.
The advisory team, by all accounts, has worked very well together; the main adversary at their first meeting proved to be the climate. Rain in the morning and black flies interfered with a photo op. As one might expect for western Quebec in mid-May, it began to snow fairly heavily during the day. McGill’s Fortier recalls that some participants had a tough time getting back to Ottawa. Even so, the weather could not dampen the spirits of the assembled. “The weather caught everyone by surprise,” she recalls. “It was a late spring. But we love working. This is a bunch of people who really enjoy to work. And we have an excellent chair, Dominic Barton [global managing director at McKinsey & Co.], who has a lot of experience in getting a group to work well together.”
The council held its second meeting in Toronto in August, along with numerous conference calls and working groups. In late October, after the council’s third meeting, Morneau released the council’s report, with three recommendations: create an infrastructure development bank, create a foreign direct investment agency, and increase annual immigration to almost 500,000 people per year. “Connectivity, innovation, inclusion and growth,” is how Hilton sums up the ideas. “The previous government would have only seen growth. We are really able to get bold ideas.”
The council plans further work, and so the question arises: How do these women find the time for all this volunteer work on behalf of Canada? Barr’s two children, for example, are aged seven and four. Fortier also sits on the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Strategic Committee of Investissements d’Excellence Bordeaux, Steering Committee of the Networks of Centres of Excellence and Ontario Task Force on Competitiveness, along with a Montreal business women’s network.
“I don’t have a young family anymore,” Fortier says. “It’s a matter of having very good time management. I love to cook. When I had less of these things, I used to cook a seven-course meal. Now when I invite my friends over — and I do — I say, ‘I’m inviting you for a picnic.’ I get prepared foods from caterers, some smoked salmon. We just want to get together.”
Fortier says Trudeau’s experience as an undergrad at McGill, where women makes up 57% of the students and the percentage of international students is the highest in Canada, shaped his inclusive approach. “His experience at McGill rubbed off,” she says. “Talent comes from a very diverse group of people.” And the ones selected for Morneau’s council are no shrinking violets. Indeed, his hot-shot female puppet masters can be an intimidating bunch. Take Angela Strange, who grew up in Ottawa, graduated from business school at Stanford University and stayed in California. She turned briefly pro as a marathon runner, launched a startup that was bought out by Google and is now an investment partner at Andreessen Horowitz in Silicon Valley in addition to co-chairing C100. The anecdote Strange shares over the phone from her home in San Francisco about how she juggles her day job, other commitments, workout regimen and the “honour” of serving on Morneau’s advisory council, gives a whole new meaning to multitasking.
“I realized I had hit a point of ridiculousness about a month ago,” Strange says. “The growth council had this early morning phone call, a consultation with a pretty senior person, and I knew I was going to be speaking in the first 15 minutes, and for the next 45 I was just going to be listening. So I got up really early, got my bike prepared and got in my bike clothes.” Strange spoke on the call for 15 minutes. At 5:45 a.m. she boarded her bicycle, slipped from her home onto the dark highways of the Bay Area and rode 40 miles to her office in Menlo Park. “I listened to this conference call as I was biking in the pitch black, down beside the highway, and I was, ‘All right, this is a little bit silly,’ but I was so proud of myself.”
Strange’s early morning ride/call does not just illustrate the calibre of woman on the growth council, it also offers us a glimpse of the kind of productivity to which we might all wish to aspire if Canada is to succeed in the 21st century.