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March 7 2023 Jam Michael McDonald

Women at the Helm: An International Women’s Day Conversation

A group of women happily work together.

The landscape of work for women in Canada is a complex one. While there is a growing number of women-founded business and senior women leaders across the country, Canada still lags behind other countries regarding gender equality in the workplace.

In Canada, more Canadian women than men have university-level education: 35% of women versus 29% of men. Despite this, highly educated women still earn only 73% of their male counterparts. And the statistics are even more grim with representation in managerial positions: only 35.3% of management occupations were held by women, with a staggering 3.5% of TSX-listed Canadian companies having a woman CEO.

Working your way up the ladder

Nancy Horkoff is the District Vice-President, Calgary Central, with Scotiabank. She has built a full, rewarding career helping others with their finances, moving up the ranks to be a predominant woman leader in Alberta.

“The opportunities for women are endless,” she says. “The sky is the limit. If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Her career path started with Scotiabank after a conversation with a friend who happened to be a Branch Manager. “She asked me one day if I’d like to be a front-line representative at her branch, so I was introduced to banking by accident,” says Horkoff.

She quickly realized she had a natural flavour for the work and loved helping others, so she set her sights on different roles within the company.

“I was passionate about helping people with their finances, so I was intrigued right away to understand how I could move up within the organization,” she says. “It was awesome to see that my friend was a Branch Manager at a young age and what she was able to accomplish with Scotiabank.”

Over her 18-year career with Scotiabank, Horkoff started at the grass roots of the organization but has also been a financial advisor, worked in project management, change management, and eventually found herself as a regional director and, now, a District Vice President. She’s worked in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and back. She has also been named the Prairie Region Champion of Women in Leadership, working with the Employee Resource Group Women in Leadership, supporting communities, employees, and local organizations.

She contributes much of her success to the incredible people around her over the years, supporting her and her growth.

“The experience that I’ve had has been phenomenal,” she says. “I have been fortunate to work with many great leaders, mentors, and sponsors throughout my career. I have had the opportunity to work with a talented, diverse team of dedicated people right across Canada, representing different business lines, priorities, and cultural changes, all with the vision of providing exceptional customer and employee experiences.”

Supporting one another

This network of ongoing mentorship and support is integral to the success and development of any person in a workplace, but especially women.

In 2017, Jeanne Lehman founded Black Canadian Women in Action (BCW), a non-profit focused on empowering Black girls and women to strive for greatness and fulfilling their potential as businesswomen. BCW is committed to promoting empowerment through self-esteem, leadership, and confidence through conferences, workshops, programs, and more, where Black women can support one another and lift each other up.

Lehman noticed there were many organizations focused on civil rights for Black women—empowering and important in their own right—but not many resources for Black women in business.

“Women in the community asked me if they could have a place to meet and talk through challenges and solutions,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘what can we do?’ So I listened to the women and learned what they want to see and do.” From there, Lehman grew the organization to have more than 300 clients in three locations: Edmonton, Calgary, and Regina.

Black women networking at a Black Canadian Women in Action event.

“We had an initial session where we asked women if they were satisfied with their jobs,” she says. “90 per cent said no,” so Lehman knew the issue needed to be addressed.

She says that oftentimes, Black women are relegated to certain roles, very rarely seeing a Black woman executive. “The Black women I know are well-educated, dynamic, and well-rounded,” adding that they need to be supported—not gifted opportunities. “We don’t want favours; we want to be a part of the conversation, be given a chance to prove what we can do.”

Many Black women who arrive in Canada from Africa and abroad have small children and unique family commitments that can be perceived as reasons to hold them back, on top of learning a new culture and sometimes a new language.

“When people keep breaking them down, seeing them in a certain light, they start to believe it,” says Lehman, encouraging women to get involved in communities like the one BCW offers to build more self-confidence and learn about opportunities.

Breaking down barriers

With Scotiabank, Horkoff identifies with internal roadblocks in her career. “Speaking from my experience, the only barriers that I’ve seen are the ones I put on myself,” she says. “I would encourage young women and anyone looking to be an executive to be confident in what you’re doing, take risks, work outside your comfort zone, set goals, and get out of your own way.”

“There was a time or two when I could have applied for a role that I may have been ready for but, internally, I did not have the confidence to put my application in. Had I been more confident and decided to take that risk, the outcome may have been different, and I may have had another job in my arsenal.”

Horkoff notes that there are exceptional Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) at Scotiabank—promoting diversity, inclusion, sponsorship, mentorship, and community involvement—as well as other ways to foster growth.

“Personal development plans are nurtured by leadership for all employees,” she says, “and emerging leader programs are designated to educate, promote, and highlight individuals who stand out in their field. This allows us to promote from within to senior executive levels.”

When asked what advice she would give, to not only build yourself up but support the women around you, Horkoff says to actively advocate for one another and keep an empathetic mindset.

“Treat everyone fairly and equitably. Be intentional about building a diverse environment that encourages the opportunity to learn and grow for everyone in the workplace. If we live by those values, everybody will grow exponentially.”

With BCW, Lehman is focused on a number of ambitious initiatives, including a program promoting Black women in STEM and an incubator giving supports to Black-women-owned startups.

“We’re always looking for partners to help expand our network, and to give Black women the chance to succeed,” she says.

“We want to be where the decisions are being made. We want to be seen. We want to conquer the world.”


To learn more about Black Canadian Women in Action and their many projects, you can visit their website.

To learn more about Scotiabank, including the Scotiabank Women Initiative, you can visit their website.