Investing In You: Glass ceiling is yours to break

By Nancy Turner | October 21, 2010 | Last updated on October 21, 2010
3 min read

To those women in the investment industry wondering how they can get ahead, listen up: The glass ceiling is yours to break.

So says Tamara Vrooman, president and CEO of Vancity and the keynote speaker at the Vancouver Investing in You conference.

Addressing a roomful of successful women in British Columbia’s financial industry, Vrooman spoke to the challenges of leadership, work-life balance, and how women can make themselves heard.

While an intern with the B.C. Ministry of Finance, Vrooman recounted her first experience with a mentor. Although the most senior woman in the public sector in British Columbia, this person had been the equivalent of an assistant deputy minister for many years and was obviously frustrated at her inability to move up. Her suggestion to the young Vrooman: “The way you get to the top is to be tougher than the toughest man.”

But this just didn’t resonate with Vrooman. She rejected the notion that she should question, “How would a man do this?” early on.

No matter the chosen vocation, she believes the path to success is for a woman be her most authentic so she doesn’t have to “perform” in her different roles: colleague, mother, wife, daughter, friend. “Start from a place that’s true to you,” she says. “That’s the better path—the one that lets you be authentic.”

If the dominant culture is different, it’ll be hard, Vrooman admits.

While in a senior role in the public sector, she found out how true this is when she put forth a novel idea on how to settle collective agreements. After presenting it, she says, a male colleague approached her and actually tapped her on the head and told her it was naive of her to think people would come together. It actually took another woman standing up and saying “Nothing else has worked; I’d like to try that out,” before the idea was accepted—and in the end was wildly successful.

The lesson: be true to yourself, don’t be afraid to trumpet your ideas, and most importantly, support—don’t tear down—your female colleagues.

Mentorship matters Vrooman notes that even in her firm, women seem more reluctant than men to network. But she asserts that no one has it all figured out, and mentorship is very important.

It doesn’t have to be a formal process. While structure can be nice, Vrooman says reaching out and having a lunch group, or pulling a group of women colleagues together to discuss things, is just as helpful.

Also important: conferences that allow women to gather together and listen to each others’ stories. “The collective wisdom in this room,” she says, “is far greater than each person’s individually.

“Our industry is worse than others,” she adds. “We tend to be closed,” due to privacy issues and to competition. “So we don’t reach out across our organizations or community to talk about the things we do have in common.” This needs to change.

How do you balance it all? For those wondering how the work/life balance comes into play, Vrooman closed with a personal story—the single-most powerful “aha” moment she says she’s had.

She was the first women to hold the office of provincial deputy minister of finance, and also the first in that role to take maternity leave. Upon returning to her post, she recounts, her young son was hospitalized due to pneumonia—the day before an important offsite meeting including all the senior leadership, the minister of finance and the premier.

As her son’s condition was stabilizing, Vrooman was busy panicking about work— trying to figure out how to prepare and make it to the meeting on time.

She got as far as the parking lot, she says, before she stopped and asked herself “What am I doing?” She promptly turned around, phoned the office, told them what happened, and asked them to reschedule—a very big deal at the time.

But a couple of days later, when she returned to work, many young mothers and fathers approached her, and said her decision had given them the confidence to ensure their own work/life balances.

“It’s very difficult to make the right choice for the right balance, but knowing where your priorities are and being transparent and true to those can make a bigger statement for leadership roles or mentorship roles than anything else can,” she says.

This leader knows what she’s talking about.


Nancy Turner