When Justin Trudeau unveiled his first cabinet with equal numbers of men and women, he explained the move with three words that are now famous: “Because it’s 2015.”
Now it’s 2020, and some women working in the trenches of Canadian finance are wondering if the push for equality doesn’t apply to them. They’re questioning, privately and publicly, how the prime minister’s avowedly feminist government could have passed over Carolyn Wilkins for Bank of Canada governor.
Wilkins, the central bank’s second-in-command, was the most qualified woman ever to compete for the position. The government’s decision to name Tiff Macklem was a disappointment to those who say it underscores slow progress in advancing women to executive roles in economics and finance. Canada may have a reputation as a progressive country, but no woman has ever been finance minister, central bank governor, chief executive of one of its six biggest banks, or head of a large public pension fund.
“Based on the feedback I’ve had, this has been a very big blow to women in financial services and the overarching question is, ‘What else do we possibly need to do?’” said Tanya Van Biesen, executive director of Catalyst Canada, a group that advocates for women’s leadership in the workplace. “When is it clear the system is broken? The women are not broken.”
When is it clear the system is broken? The women are not broken
Tanya Van Biesen
Bloomberg interviewed eight Canadian women in senior roles in finance and economics. Most spoke on condition they not be identified, as their employers didn’t want them expressing public views about the politically sensitive appointment of the central bank governor.
All were careful to point out they respect Macklem, who takes up the Bank of Canada’s top job on June 3. But several said when it comes to getting the top jobs in finance, an old-boys’ network still exists.
“Not to take anything away from Tiff,” said Margaret Franklin, chief executive officer of the Charlottesville, Virginia-based CFA Institute and former president of BNY Mellon Wealth Management in Canada. “I think it’s a disappointing missed opportunity, particularly for a government that’s been very clear on the agenda of putting very well-qualified, very credible women in leadership positions.”
Some say the decision highlights a lack of transparency in the process. The Bank of Canada governor is selected entirely in secret and there is no confirmation hearing, unlike the chair of the Federal Reserve. The world finds out who got the job when the finance minister and the new governor walk into an introductory news conference.
That Wilkins and Macklem were both qualified for the role was evident. They were the only people on the final shortlist. Wilkins had backers within Trudeau’s office but Finance Minister Bill Morneau championed Macklem, according to three people familiar with the discussions. Wilkins had the support of the current governor, Stephen Poloz, who had been grooming his top deputy for years.
An official in the prime minister’s office, speaking Wednesday on condition of anonymity, said the government had several conversations and took time to make the right decision, describing the candidates as excellent. The official said there was no division within the government about Macklem as the consensus choice.
Macklem, 58, spent two decades at the bank, helping to lead Canada through the 2008-09 financial crisis in the No. 2 role she now holds. Wilkins, 56, has been at the bank almost as long, becoming senior deputy governor in 2014. She’s the bank’s Group of 20 and Group of Seven deputy and has represented it at global institutions including the International Monetary Fund.
Wilkins has also been front and centrein the bank’s efforts to loosen up credit markets and buffer the country’s economy from the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest shock since the Great Depression.
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She doesn’t have a Ph.D. in economics like Macklem, Poloz or Mark Carney, who was governor from 2008 to 2013. On the other hand, neither do Fed Chairman Jerome Powell or European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde.
Macklem does have one other thing Wilkins doesn’t: senior management experience outside the bank. Given the government hasn’t chosen an insider as governor since 1994 — including Macklem, who was passed over in 2013 for Poloz — that may have mattered.
Macklem is dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. He also also ran an expert government panel on sustainable finance and was a director of the Bank of Nova Scotia, Canada’s third-largest bank, where he was chairman of the risk committee.
Requiring outside experience is another way of disqualifying women, several of the women interviewed said. There are few in the upper echelons of Canada’s financial industry to choose from. There are even fewer with experience in both monetary policy and finance. If outside experience is a must-have, that should be made clear in the selection process, said one woman who works in a senior role at a large Canadian bank.
Canada’s financial industry does better than many sectors in advancing women, particularly at the biggest firms, but the rate of improvement has been slow, according to law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, LLP, which does an annual study. Last year, an average of 21 per cent of executive officers were women, up from 19 per cent in 2016, the law firm said.
Wilkins “has done the hard work, put in the hard yard, proven herself, and yet this job was still not available to her,” Van Biesen said.
The senior deputy governor declined an interview request on the topic. “I have deep respect for Tiff as an economist, and as a public servant. I look forward to working closely with him in his new role as governor and as a colleague on the governing council as we carry out the important work of the Bank,” Wilkins said in an email.
Some of the those interviewed see the personal relationship between Morneau and Macklem as central to the decision. The finance minister had been considering Macklem for the job for two years, according to a person familiar with the minister’s thinking.
Macklem was part of the “in crowd” of Canadian finance, said one woman with a long history on Bay Street. In 2018, Morneau appointed Macklem to chair an expert panel on sustainable finance, which laid out ways markets can push the transition to a green economy, a priority for the Trudeau government.
Armine Yalnizyan, a Canadian economist and research fellow at the progressive Atkinson Foundation, speculated Wilkins may end up as deputy finance minister to further her credentials. A switch to the powerful finance department, in the midst of a crisis in which fiscal policy will be centre stage, might put Wilkins in an even more influential role than running the Bank of Canada, she said.
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