'A slow-moving machine': Calgary's top businesswomen taking charge as gender gaps prevail

This year’s CIWB Awards recipients have ‘set a tone and pace of strong leadership and haven’t backed away from challenges and have addressed them head-on’

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Engineers tend to be a stubborn bunch, Jennifer Massig says. And she loves them for it.

“Everyone tells them that they’re wrong, and they’re fine with being right,” she says. “It’s great because it allows an engineer not to be negatively influenced when they believe that they’re standing for something they should when it comes to public safety and the environment.”

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But that same instinct can often lead them to retreat into traditional practices — a trait she believes has long stymied progress toward gender parity in engineering. “It’s pretty bad,” she says of gender diversity across Calgary’s engineering sectors.

Massig started her wastewater and stormwater treatment company, Magna Engineering Services Inc., as a single mother with two children. Partly out of necessity, she’s structured the company with a four-day work week that emphasizes work hours between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., while employees can complete the rest of their required hours in hybrid.

That, plus a predominantly female leadership, has resulted in Massig’s company reaching substantial gender parity, making her an outlier in her industry.

Massig is one of a handful of women being celebrated Friday at the Calgary Influential Women in Business Awards (CIWB), where she will be awarded the small/medium enterprise distinction for 2024.

Alberta one of Canada’s poorest performers in wage parity

It’s the awards’ fifth year, which recognize women in large enterprise, small and medium enterprise, professional services and social enterprise roles, as well as the lifetime achievement award.

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This year’s recipients have “set a tone and pace of strong leadership and haven’t backed away from challenges, and have addressed them head-on,” said Nuvyn Peters, CEO of Axis Connects, the non-profit hosting the awards. The organization was created to advance gender diversity in Calgary’s business community.

A recent study from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce found Alberta remains one of the country’s poorest performers when it comes to wage parity. Women in management positions, for example, make just 81 cents for every dollar a man earns in Alberta. In other provinces, such as Quebec and Prince Edward Island, the wage gap has become almost nonexistent.

“Companies need to be tracking and addressing changes in the gender diversity landscape — it’s not enough to look at the C-Suite and say, ‘how do we get more women here?’ if we aren’t looking at the talent pipeline,’” she said.

Axis is currently working in partnership with Enbridge to study gender promotion bias and why women are choosing to leave the workforce. The partnership is still in early days, Peters said.

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‘Make sure that we’re open about it’

Lorraine Mitchelmore, former president and country chair of Shell Canada, is this year’s recipient of the lifetime achievement award. She now serves as an independent director to a slew of major organizations, including Suncor, Trans Mountain, BMO and AIMCo.

In her more than three decades in the energy industry, Mitchelmore has often been the lone woman in the boardroom, she said.

“Of course I did (notice), but I plowed through it, and that’s what you have to do,” she said in an interview.

While progress has overall been positive, Mitchelmore said, “It’s a slow-moving machine.

“I think the biases are still there . . . it’s not going to go away overnight,” she said. “There will probably be gaps for a long time coming, but I think the most important thing is to make sure that we’re open about it.”

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Different work structures can provide benefits

Meanwhile, some companies have worked to facilitate a more viable workplace for mothers.

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Magna’s structure, between its flexible work schedule and female leadership, has perpetuated diversity without requiring a concerted effort to hire more women, Massig said.

“When I was one employee, I was 100 per cent female. When I was two employees, I was 100 per cent female. Three employees, two-thirds female,” she said. “I think that starting from that base point really helped us on that diversity pathway.”

The 2024 CIWB winners are:

  • Lifetime Achievement: Lorraine Mitchelmore, formerly president and country chair/EVP Shell Canada, now serving as an independent director for several organizations, including Suncor, BMO, AIMCo, Cheniere Energy, Shell, Catalyst and Trans Mountain.
  • Large Enterprise: Doreen Cole, executive vice-president of downstream at Cenovus.
  • Small/Medium Enterprise: Jennifer Massig, CEO of Magna Engineering Services.
  • Professional Services: Alicia Quesnel, managing partner at BDP LLP.
  • Social Enterprise: Wendy Beauchesne, CEO of Alberta Cancer Foundation.
  • Male Champion: Bryan de Lottinville, founder and chief evangelist of Benevity.

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