Back to Bay Street

Awards help senior women return to work after extended leaves
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/06/2014

Having been out of the workforce for five years — when she had three children — Rakhi Tejani was not sure how to go about returning to her career. Previously in banking and finance for 13 years, she’d tried to re-enter the workforce for about six months but the opportunities were not suitable for her skills or interests, or simply were the wrong path.

Then she heard about Women in Capital Markets (WCM) — an organization dedicated to the advancement of women in business and increasing the number of women in senior leadership roles — and attended its Back to Bay Street conference.

"One of my biggest takeaways from this conference was looking around the room and realizing that there are many women who were in the exact same situation where I was," she said.

Inspired, Tejani went on to apply for — and was given — the Return to Bay Street award through WCM. Launched in 2010 by WCM and BMO, the awards are given to professional women who have taken a break from their careers in the capital markets industry and are ready to restart their careers. They each receive $5,000 toward an education program, a four-month paid internship at either BMO, National Bank of Canada, RBC or Scotiabank, along with a mentorship and one-year membership with WCM.

It’s the ideal platform for success, said Tejani, now senior manager of operational risk at National Bank of Canada in Toronto.

"I (was) given to the opportunity to intern at a top-tier bank, which has subsequently led to a full-time permanent role. This award also opened doors to a network of highly successful individuals, including being appointed a senior-level mentor to help guide my career. I have been fortunate that returning to Bay Street has been a great experience for me."

It’s not only about attracting women to the financial industry but also retaining them and moving them into senior leadership roles, said Jennifer Reynolds, president and CEO of WCM in Toronto. And the awards target senior women who have significant experience, bringing them back into senior roles so they’re not starting at the bottom of the ladder again.

"Really, it is a launchpad for these women… it’s difficult when you’ve been out to find opportunities, to get chances, to get someone to take a chance on you and let you get back in, so this provides that vehicle," she said. "Women with children are working, they do need to come back and I don’t want to see them marginalized and always relegated to middle management positions because they took that break."

So far, six women have done WCM’s awards and there were six winners this year. But the program could apply in any industry, said Reynolds — there are not enough women in senior leadership roles and part of that is because they decided to take time off.

"Everybody’s experience is still there, it’s just a matter of really getting back into the environment and quickly getting back up to speed," she said.

Susan Cowan was introduced to the program through an acquaintance and was a Back to Bay Street award winner in 2014. Now a director in the financial and debt products group at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto, she previously had a successful 18-year career before taking an extended leave of 12 years.

"Even with that extended leave, the skill sets and the experience that we acquired during our careers are still very relevant and very in demand," she said.

Cowan initially considered part-time work before taking time off, but that wasn’t an option.

"It’s a very performance-driven business, it’s very relationship-driven, it’s very transaction-oriented, so you’ve got to be fully present and all in," she said.

But to relaunch your career, the WCM program makes sense.

"It’s a fantastic platform for women like myself who have taken this extended leave and who have played senior roles previously, to come back into comparable roles in each organization," said Cowan. "That’s the beauty of it — they really are not trying to bring you in and start all over."

Society need to start thinking about careers differently, said Reynolds.

"Society does look at these women and go, ‘Well, they can’t come back and they certainly can’t come back to senior roles, can they?’ So really this is turning things upside down a bit and saying, ‘Yeah, they can,’" she said.

"Companies need to start having a better dialogue with women about career paths and what happens when you have a family, and what does that look like when you come back or what could it look like... financial institutions and otherwise need to start having those conversations and creating different alternatives for people."

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