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Raising a glass to powerful Saskatchewan women: Leading us into tomorrow

David Stobbe / Stobbe Photo

Saskatchewan has spawned some exceptional and inspiring female icons over time. These women have significantly touched our lives in a variety of milieus including business, politics, entertainment, media, education and sports.

Let’s talk about Tatiana Maslany, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte Marie, Jess Moskaluke, Tenille Arts and Pamela Wallin, household names who broke into the entertainment and media industries. These super women show us it’s possible to reach the heights.

Sharon Butala, Candace Savage, Gail Bowen and Sandra Birdsell are towering, award-winning Saskatchewan writers in the genres of fiction, history and film. Through their powerful words we find escape and/or education. To some extent we can parse their processes.

What about titans of business, like Betty Ann Heggie, who carved a new path for a woman at Potash Corp. Or more recently, Natasha and Elysia Vandenhurk, two sisters at the helm of Three Farmers, a family business that took legume production to a new level to provide wholesome food. A few hours of farmer talk at a small-town curling rink with one whiskey too many, and a dream was born!

Some women, like Dr. Lillian Dyck, built admirable, multi-faceted careers. Dyck is a scholar, feminist, senator and advocate for Indigenous rights. She was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to earn a PhD in science and became a professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s (U of S) Neuropsychiatry Research Unit.

As women, we are making things happen within our province. We’re here. We’re doing really good things!
– Celina Philpot, CEO, Conexus Credit Union

Psychologist, educator, politician, and author, Dr. Linda Haverstock is a “Golden Grad” of the U of S. She broke glass ceilings and devoted herself to improving the world she lives in. She was the first woman to be elected leader of a political party in Saskatchewan (Liberal).

Another ‘golden girl,’ Sylvia Fedoruk, served as a medical physicist at the Saskatoon Cancer Clinic. She became the first female lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan and the first female chancellor of the U of S.

Nicknamed, “The Saskatoon Lily,” Ethel Catherwood became a sensation as the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal for the high jump in 1928. She remains the only Canadian woman ever to win an individual gold medal in Olympic track and field.

Other pioneers like Violet McNaughton, used her platform as a journalist and feminist leader to improve the lives of farm women on the prairies. She earned the title, “most influential farm woman of the 20th century”.

Dr. Frances McGill was Canada’s first female forensic pathologist. She became known as the “Sherlock Holmes of Saskatchewan.”

These are the sorts of luminaries who inspire names on streets and buildings and sometimes lakes. They also inspire a new generation of women to blast through fresh frontiers.

As we celebrate this success and progress, we also acknowledge there are more miles to travel to reach gender parity. A study published late last year found that only five per cent of TSX companies have a woman CEO.

Other studies reveal that companies led by women tend to outperform those dominated by men. Additional research finds that women’s brains are significantly more active than men’s, in many more regions.

With this knowledge, we may see a shift coming, with women becoming more empowered and more selective when choosing a workplace. A 2022 Forbes report offers hope as it lists the world’s top (400) female-friendly workplaces.

We celebrate more Saskatchewan women who are currently building their own legacies in the province and leading us into the future.

Celina Philpot. Photo by David Stobbe / Stobbe Photo

Celina Philpot

Newly planted in Regina after 27 years with credit unions in Manitoba, Celina Philpot has reached new heights in her career. She was recently named CEO of Conexus Credit Union.

Adjusting to a new city in a new province is never easy. But Philpot has enjoyed a warm welcome. “The people are very friendly, very inviting. I felt very welcome right from day one,” she says.

Since her appointment last September, Philpot has visited many of the Conexus branches in the province. Through that touring, Philpot developed a fondness for a certain Saskatchewan landmark. “I do love the Qu’Appelle Valley. It is very beautiful. Whoever says Saskatchewan was flat, well, it’s not flat. That was a misnomer.” And the skylines in “The Land of Living Skies” remind her of Manitoba.

Philpot is the first woman to hold the CEO role at Conexus. “Coming from Manitoba, I find Saskatchewan to be quite progressive. I’m running into a lot of female leaders of large organizations, like the Federated Co-op with Heather Ryan leading, and Blue Cross with Kelly Wilson as CEO,”  Philpot says.

My industry is still pretty much male-dominated. The large banks are all led by men. But the largest credit unions in Canada (Vancity and Meridian) are led by women!

Within the larger picture, female representation differs between credit unions and the big banks. A study by DBRS Morningstar found that only 18 per cent of banks had a female CEO—HSBC Bank Canada and Laurentian Bank of Canada—compared with 38 per cent of credit unions and co-operatives.

“My industry is still pretty much male-dominated. The large banks are all led by men. But the largest credit unions in Canada (Vancity and Meridian) are led by women,” says Philpot.

Within that male-dominated world some shifts are taking place. There’s more opportunity for women in financial services to prove they belong at that table, Philpot says. “As we’re able to get into those realms within the business community we demonstrate we can lead and lead differently.”

“Sometimes that leadership involves doing hard things. As a leader I’ve had to make difficult decisions in my career, seeking to do the right thing while leading with empathy.”

Tammy McKay. Photo by David Stobbe / Stobbe Photo

Tammy McKay

One of Tammy McKay’s mantras for success is ‘embrace change.’  “The world is constantly changing,” she says. “There is always opportunity within change.”

That mantra guided McKay to becoming managing director at First Nations Insurance Services (FNIS). “Accepting the leadership role with FNIS in 2017 was a big turning point for me. It was my transition from finance-based work to leadership,” she says.

McKay was born and raised in La Ronge and Air Ronge and celebrates her Métis ancestry. Post-secondary studies took her to Calgary and Toronto and then back to Saskatchewan to finish up her CPA designation. Public practice, in industry and in government, claimed the first 19 years of her career. Then in 2002, she was offered a part-time consultant position overseeing the accounting department at FNISLP. A permanent position materialized in 2016 which led to being offered managing director in 2017.

Inevitably, leadership involves making tough decisions. “Mine have been in the area of human resources and the impacts on the organization’s strategic planning, finances and operations,” McKay says. “The pressure of making these tough choices is significant as it affects the livelihood of employees and the future of the business.”

But human resources is also where some of her best decisions have been made. McKay has the satisfaction of knowing she’s been able to assemble an amazing team. Together, the group can position the organization for continued growth and success within the insurance industry.

Accepting the leadership role with FNIS in 2017 was a big turning point for me. It was my transition from finance-based work to leadership.

In her management role, McKay has enjoyed support and empowerment from progressive, forward-thinking groups, like Kitsaki Management Group of Companies and Peter Ballantyne Group of Companies. “However, in general there is still more work to be done to realize equality for women across the board,” she observes. McKay recommends that women surround themselves with a strong network of mentors, peers and role models, both women and men, who can offer different perspectives and insights.

And these days, she can return the favor. “Supporting and developing others is a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. It can bring both the largest challenges and the most rewarding experiences.”

Leadership roles can be demanding and come with setbacks and obstacles. Leaders need to develop resilience to bounce back from failures, learn from them, and keep moving forward.  And never stop learning.

“As a leader you need to embrace who you are. You have your own experiences, and you are the best at being you, so advocate for yourself and for those things that you are passionate about and believe in.”

Carm DiSanto (Michalenko). David Stobbe / Stobbe Photo

Carm DiSanto (Michalenko)

A familiar figure around Saskatoon, Carm DiSanto (Michalenko) gained diverse leadership experience in the public, private, non-profit and cooperative sectors before landing in the charitable sector. She has served as CEO of Saskatoon Community Foundation (SCF) since 2016. Perhaps one reason for the transition is found on DiSanto’s Twitter profile. She is “working on building a life that means something.”

Running a foundation involves all of the usual day-to-day requirements of any business or organization, but with an added dimension. “We’re mission or purpose driven,” she says. “That is a critical piece. So, we need to be very entrepreneurial and creative. We’ve got the economic, financial side and also the social side. Sometimes I say we’re in the social good sector, or the change sector.”  The foundation provides community grants and supports over 280 charities through charitable funds set up by donors.

DiSanto is most proud of her work to support reconciliation. In 2016, she made a personal commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. The seed was planted during DiSanto’s 18 years working with Affinity Credit Union. “We did a lot with Indigenous communities, and Indigenous leaders,” she says. “I felt really enriched by their amazing culture. It is just a shame that their culture and identity was taken.” When she started at SCF, DiSanto’s put a plan in motion for the board, and they too embraced a journey of action with Call to Action #92.

In May, along with Tracy Muggli, DiSanto was a co-recipient of the first Truth & Reconciliation award from the YWCA Saskatoon’s Women of Distinction. Among other things, the award recognizes women who are “building bridges, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples across Saskatoon.”

We’ve got the economic, financial side and then we’ve got the social side. Sometimes I say we’re in the social good sector, or the change sector.

DiSanto is driven to create a vibrant community between partners to do what needs to be done to create a vibrant community. Under her leadership, the foundation has evolved to a more impactful mission. Through creating collaborations with charitable partners, business sector and philanthropist Carm believes a holistic (i.e. community based and economic based solution) is possible.  She believes women have the innate social intelligence and the smarts to do just that.  They help bring change to dysfunctional and outdated systems that simply aren’t serving business and society any more. As one of three Canadians chosen to make a 2012 Canadian Cooperative Association trip to Botswana and South Africa, she observed that communities there were “lifted because of women leading. There are many proven studies that show having women in leadership roles is good business,” she says.

DiSanto encourages younger women in business to find a mentor. “Find someone who you click with and who complements your skills.” She is a 35-year member of the Business and Professional Women’s Organization which could be a good place for mentor-shopping.

She also encourages students who are making critical education and career decisions to consider the non-profit sector, the third-largest sector in Canada. “I’d highly encourage that because it’s super meaningful and rewarding!”

Ritu Malhotra. David Stobbe / Stobbe Photo

Ritu Malhotra

Ritu Malhotra was perfectly content with her role as engineering manager for a large full-service company when another opportunity dropped from the sky. “I was approached for the position of Director, Power & Controls at March Consulting Associates Inc. (March).”

It was a tough decision, but she made the move in 2012. Since then, her upward trajectory at March has led her into the role of vice president, operations in 2015 and CEO in 2018. A parallel trajectory has led Malhotra into corporate governance and emerging as an accomplished leader in Saskatchewan.

Malhotra has led March through some tough times, as well as monumental growth. When the Saskatchewan mining and heavy industrial sector went into a downturn, she credits the resilience and persistence of the March team for getting the company through.

“We built strong relationships with new clients and strengthened relationships with existing ones,” Malhotra says. In the past five years, March has expanded from its single location in Saskatoon, to a new Regina office in 2018 and a Calgary office in 2022.

Malhotra has discovered that in business, and in life, there is no perfect time. “One must always keep an open mind. Grab opportunities when you can and make tough decisions when they are needed,” she observes.

One should never, ever compromise on one’s values.

When Malhotra grabbed the opportunity to join March, she was pregnant with her second child. Her team was delivering on two large, complex projects under very tight timelines. “The fact that only women can biologically give birth is often a barrier in their career progression.” It was 2012, but her company agreed Malhotra could work remotely while foregoing the typical maternity leave. That flexibility allowed March to successfully deliver both projects.

Malhotra says there are still societal barriers to understanding the unique needs that impact women. Misconceptions remain, like the assumption that the women are still the “secondary” earner of the house, or the unconscious bias around their commitment to work.

“At March, we believe that removal of these barriers and inclusion has to be thoughtful and deliberate.” The company has over 50 per cent female representation in senior management and 50 per cent on the board.

Malhotra underscores the importance of building professional networks and relationships, as they can accelerate personal and professional growth. “They often lead to valuable connections, mentorships, and opportunities.”

After completing her Ph.D., Malhotra was presented with opportunities to relocate to other parts of the world. But staying in the province became a defining moment. “I am glad I saw the growth opportunity that Saskatchewan was providing!”

Kelly Wells

Kelly Wells

Joining Canada North Environmental Services (CanNorth) as an Aquatic Biologist and spending summers doing field work in northern Saskatchewan was the ideal job for Kelly Wells after graduating university. Now, 21 years later, Kelly is CanNorth’s Environment Division Manager and enjoys mentoring young biologists. Wells is also an integral part of CanNorth’s operations and management teams.

Wells knew from an early age that she wanted to work in the environment field. While growing up, Wells spent summers at the family cottage and discovered a love of fish biology and being on the water. She would trade a desk for a new adventure any day.

In Wells’ formative years, she got some guidance from a senior fisheries biologist who worked alongside Wells’ father. “I talked to her about consulting and what type of work she did. She really inspired me to go into consulting. I love the pace of it, the diversity, the mix of field and office work, and the applied science.”

CanNorth has proven to be the perfect fit. The company started small and built conservatively. The four employees on staff when Wells joined in 2001 did everything. “I learnt quickly. Right away I jumped into doing cost estimates, project management and client relations, but I also mended fish nets and conducted fish surveys.” It is this eclectic environment that has kept Wells interested in consulting. Now there are 90 employees at CanNorth and that includes a large proportion of women in senior positions. “Our operations and management teams are almost all women. I’m surrounded by competent, amazing women,” she says. Wells is very aware of ongoing challenges for women in the workplace, but at CanNorth she has found zero barriers for women.

Our operations and management teams are almost all women. I’m surrounded by competent, amazing women.

Wells feels that being part of the Kitsaki group of companies is a significant factor in CanNorth’s success and brings many benefits to the company. CanNorth is attracting staff who want to be part of an Indigenous-owned company. “Kitsaki and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band are very supportive and Chief Tammy Cook-Searson is a strong role model for women worldwide.”

Fantastic “moments” on the job for Wells have come from spending time in the north, especially the Lake Athabasca, Uranium City area. “I learned so much from the people that live there, both personally and professionally…. I fell in love with northern Saskatchewan, being on the lake, and the remoteness.”

For Wells, what she loved in childhood was a clue to her future destiny. She chose a boutique company with strong leadership, sustainable hiring practices, room to grow and advance, and diverse work. And she has never looked back.