As Canada's leading bank, RBC has long achieved a strong representation of women at and near the top. Three of the seven executive leaders who directly to the CEO are women. Across the organization, 46 per cent of middle managers and above are women, including 39 per cent of executives.

But it’s now even later than 2015, and well before Justin Trudeau made his famous statement about gender parity, RBC had embarked on an intensive program to make sure it has a strong new generation of women executives coming up.

Our goal is to continue to increase the representation of women and visible minorities at executive levels across our organization.

Helena Gottschling, Senior Vice President, Leadership & Organizational Development, Human Resources

Part of its broader leadership efforts, the bank’s Women in Leadership program recognizes the unique needs of high- potential women who are one or two levels below vice-president, the first executive rung, and invites them to a 10-month integrated program involving coaching, workshops and forums to strengthen their leadership skills.

The program began in 2014 with a group of 28 women seen as potential future leaders. “It focuses in on the kind of support women might need to reach their full potential,” says Helena Gottschling, Senior Vice President, Leadership & Organizational Development, Human Resources. “Our goal is to continue to increase the representation of women and visible minorities at executive levels across our organization.”

Gottschling points out that there are challenges unique to women climbing the corporate ladder, particularly unconscious biases. “It can be making assumptions about what women want or don’t want,” she says. “Such as, ‘They wouldn’t want to move to a new city because they have young children.’ Or assumptions about whether they are ‘as committed’ because they’re also raising a young family. At RBC, we’re talking about these unconscious biases more and addressing them. The key is asking versus assuming.”

Lynette Gillen, now Regional Vice President Commercial Financial Services, Ontario North & East, became part of the first Women in Leadership cohort while she was based in Regina, and found she learned a lot. “It increased my self-awareness in a lot of areas, both personally and professionally,” she says.

“What was great about being part of a group of all women was it felt safer to self-disclose. I know in a group that included men I wouldn’t say, ‘you know, when I speak up to strongly disagree in a meeting I’m afraid I’m going to be labelled as aggressive.’ I was able to say that in this group and then found that other women across the organization were feeling the same way.”

She also remembers at a workshop being given a complex topic – how should RBC expand globally? – 15 minutes before having to deliver a live presentation on it to a room of executives. Afterwards, she and others who did the exercise were given written feedback from the executives, and then discussed it on a call in small groups. “We talked about it – do I agree with the feedback, did we miss the mark or present our strategy well? – and it was just a safe group to go through the experience with.”

Gillen was also able to network with women from across RBC’s global operation. She is still in touch with her small group, which she calls her “truth-tellers”, discussing their work experiences and challenges on a regular basis.

About eight months after completing the program, Gillen learned of her promotion to regional vice-president, an executive role based in Ottawa. According to Gottschling, just over half of participants have moved into new roles that expand their horizons and develop their careers.

She says the program has other benefits. “We are also enabling managers to provide better coaching to individuals and addressing some of their unconscious biases,” she says. “And it’s an attraction to potential talent when they see we are making this effort. It reinforces our position as an employer of choice.”

46% of middle management positions and above are held by women. 2,600+ participants in Diversity Dialogues mentoring program.

Reproduced with permission from the announcement magazine for Canada's Top 100 Employers (2017), published November 7, 2016 in The Globe and Mail. © 2016 Mediacorp Canada Inc. and The Globe and Mail. All rights reserved.

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