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Women in finance - how mentorship can make the difference

By Jessica McEwen, CFA 6 January 2020 4 min read

From books to banking

Like many of my team members, when I started with ATB I was on the front line at a local branch. At that point, I had just finished my degree and I thought that I would stay within my comfort zone by studying for another degree or furthering my education in some other way. At the time, shifting to the world of finance as a career wasn’t on my radar.

Working in the branch I found myself curious about the day to day work of a Senior Financial Advisor. She was an indisputably cheerful woman who cared deeply for her clients. She was well-respected within our community but more importantly, she was a trusted advisor who consistently shared in the joy of enabling her clients to reach their goals. For me, she was a mentor who was relentless in her career. Although she would tease that I was a total bookworm, her drive to be great in her role and further her expertise was my motivation to continue to learn more about the industry.


A twist of fate

A few months after I joined the branch, this advisor approached me about joining her team as an associate. I was excited about the opportunity and comforted to know that this would mean more studying, as I would need to be licensed with the regulator. Even though I was still figuring out what this all meant, I was excited to get back to the books and learn more about the industry.

This introduction to the world of personal finance fueled my passion for understanding the intricacies of the investment and wealth management industries. I didn’t fully realize until later in my career how fortunate I was to have a built-in mentor in my new boss. As I pursued new opportunities within ATB, I also started to work towards the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation.


Barriers for professional designations

As a newly minted CFA Charterholder, I often like to look back on the path that got me here. I’ve spent my career with ATB, never really questioning my place in the organizational landscape and always feeling supported to achieve new positions alongside the pursuit of my Charter.

However, something that was noticeably absent in my quest was the company of other female colleagues pursuing their Charter, not just at my firm, but throughout the industry. Was I just not seeking them out or were there truly that few? At the exam centre, people would talk in jest about the convenience of the short line-up for the ladies’ washroom compared to the men’s. While the benefits of being in the minority was helpful to make a quick trip to quell pre-exam nerves, it was just a small example of a greater disparity within the industry that I was only just starting to notice.

Less than 1 in 5 Charterholders are female, and there are a number of other statistics that show the disparity in our field.


It left me thinking - how can we encourage more women to pursue this designation?


I thought back to the role my mentor played in encouraging me to learn more about the industry and advance my career within our firm. While the disparity between men and women in finance isn’t unique in the world of business, many industries can benefit from more women pursuing professional designations to enhance their career. Just like my story, this can often be achieved through the motivation of a keen mentor or the support of a sponsor relationship.


Mentorship vs. Sponsorship

Having a strong mentor early in my career encouraged me to be confident in my pursuit of new opportunities. That said, many mentees  and mentors alike are familiar with the traditional role that a mentor can play but have not considered how this relationship can be elevated.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) broaches this topic by considering mentorship as the first point on a spectrum of a variety of professional relationships that can exist. The end of this spectrum is true sponsorship which is accomplished through being a public advocate for someone else’s career progression. In this role of advocacy, a sponsor uses their power, and personal capital, for the benefit of someone with less of both.The article discusses an important fact that women are over mentored and under sponsored and as a result this can provide a barrier to the advancement of women into leadership roles.

Sponsorship differs from mentorship because sponsorship involves direct advocacy whereas a traditional mentorship relationship involves a transfer of knowledge or past experience. In the same HBR article, Ibarra addresses the challenges of sponsorship, and references personal capital as a “nonrenewable resource” which speaks to the level of public advocacy that is required to elevate an individual's career and why, at a corporate level, formal sponsorship programs can be a challenge. When approached as a binary commitment (either all or nothing) it can seem daunting - everyone is busy! Looking at sponsorship as a spectrum, however, can really open the door to many ways we can work to elevate the careers of those around us, much like my mentor did early on.

"While a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you."

Herminia Ibarra

Harvard Business Review

Exploring the paradigm of sponsorship vs. mentorship has led me to reflect on the role I can play in encouraging the careers of other women in my network. How I can share my knowledge or advocate for another woman? How can we make the industry as a whole better for women, both as advisors and clients? It might just start from understanding the power you have and using it to the benefit of someone who needs it.


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