Bank of Montreal’s Downe says female bank CEOs inevitable

Bill Downe, CEO of BMO Financial Group, speaks at the company's annual meeting in Toronto on April 1, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu



The head of Bank of Montreal says Canada’s biggest financial institutions are actively grooming women to become chief executive officers, ending centuries of male rule at the country’s top lenders.
“There are five large Canadian banks,” CEO Bill Downe said in an interview. “I think it’s inevitable.”
Canada’s biggest banks have never had a female CEO, reflecting the broader business landscape where just seven of the 249 companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange’s main index are led by women, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Downe says that may change in the years to come as he and his banking peers put female candidates on the slate.
“There are women who are in development to be candidates to be CEO,” Downe said in Bloomberg’s Toronto office Thursday. “There are men who are also being groomed but we’re building depth of bench that has gender balance.”
Canadian lenders are better off than other industries for diversity in leadership roles. Women comprise 28 percent of the banks’ executive committees and 32 percent of their boards of directors, according to company websites and Bloomberg data. Many mining, technology and energy firms don’t have a single woman on the board or in an executive role. South of the border, there are about a dozen women CEOs at the more than 3,000 publicly traded lenders. No women command the top role at the 10 largest U.S. banks.

Big Shift
“The last two years have been a substantial mind shift on the part of boards,” said Tanya van Biesen, the executive director of Catalyst Canada, an organization that promotes women in the workplace. Downe sits on the Catalyst board. “I’m actually quite an optimist. There’s huge upside still to be seen in this country in terms of things companies can do.”
The Ontario Securities Commission implemented a “comply-or-explain” rule in 2014 that requires firms listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange to highlight the number of female directors and executives, along with targets for increasing diversity. In 2016, representation of women on boards rose only 1 percentage point to 12 percent from the year earlier. The federal government proposed a similar law in September that would affect about 40 percent of publicly listed companies.
“I’m not an advocate of quotas but in the absence of progress, I think that the imminent passage of quotas probably will stimulate action,” Downe said. He said he doesn’t support quotas because a woman promoted under that system may be perceived as not qualified. He also said that with engagement, companies will shift with time.
Female Executives
Downe, 64, is currently the longest-serving bank CEO in Canada, with almost a decade on the job at his Toronto-based company. The other four largest banks replaced their CEOS in the last three years, all promoting men to the top post. Among the highest-ranking female executives at the banks are Jennifer Tory, group head of personal and commercial banking at Royal Bank of Canada, and Laura Dottori-Attanasio, chief risk officer at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
“Do I think it’s likely that there’ll be a woman as a CEO of a bank in the next 10 years? I think the answer is probably yes,” said Matt Fullbrook, the manager of the Clarkson Centre for Board Effectiveness at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “But do I think that that is going to be a signal of a huge shift overall in the way c-suites and boards are composed in Canada? Not really.”

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