By Shelley White
Maria Theofilaktidis is passionate about gender inclusion in the workplace.
“It’s a personal thing for me, because I’ve always had this view of identifying injustice out there and then trying to do something about it,” she says.
As Executive Vice President for Retail Distribution, Canadian Banking at Scotiabank, Maria is a shining example of how women can enjoy career success while helping others to do the same.
She’s a member of the Global Inclusion Council at Scotiabank, where she is the Executive Champion for Scotiabank Women. Her role on the council is to monitor and promote a culture of inclusion at Scotiabank, while acting as a role model for younger employees exemplifying what women can achieve.
“If I look back at my career, there have been very few women role models in top positions, because I’ve been in male-dominated industries,” says Maria. “I feel that every woman has that responsibility to show others the path she has taken and the things she has done that have led to her being successful.”
Maria’s journey to success began as a child growing up in South Africa. She was one of four daughters of working-class, Greek-Cypriot immigrants, and says her parents instilled a strong work ethic and spirit of perseverance that would serve her well in the working world.
“My parents had a hard life, and their focus was around us getting an education, being independent, making our own paths and never having to rely on someone else for our own success or life,” she says. “I never grew up with a view that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. When I started work, that was the mindset I started with.”
In her early days as an accountant, Maria says it could be challenging to be the only woman at the boardroom table.
“There were times I walked into a meeting and they would talk to the young man on my right or my left because they assumed that he was my boss,” she says.
Faced with these obstacles, Maria refused to let those challenging moments get her down. She called upon that persevering spirit to assert herself and prove her abilities, while still remaining true to her personality and her values.
“I didn’t let it stop me from having my voice heard,” she says. “I think one thing that helped me was that I worked with some forward-thinking leaders, who were supportive and empowered and put you in those positions irrespective of the fact that you were the only woman on the team.”
Maria points out that study after study has shown that companies that have a more gender-diverse management team and workforce are more engaged, more innovative and more competitive. And while some might fear the spectre of “tokenism,” she emphasizes that gender-inclusive hiring practices are about creating an environment where everyone has an equal opportunity to be the best they can be.
“It’s not about squashing men and lifting others up, but rather to be sure our policies and practices are fair and equitable and that the opportunities are there for everyone,” she says. “It’s our responsibility to provide [young women] coming into the workforce with the opportunities to develop on an equal basis to their male peers.”
One of Scotiabank’s initiatives to promote gender equality is their “HeForShe” movement, where male leaders at the company talk publicly about the actions they will take personally to help empower women and challenge any unconscious bias they may have when it comes to women in the workplace.
“We’ve had some great take-up on that, people who have said, ‘I’m so pleased we’re having this conversation,’” says Maria. “The more people talk about it, the more they are able to engage and say, ‘I recognize that now in myself and I can learn to do things differently.’”
As the champion for Scotiabank Women, Maria says she’s been proud to see the company’s commitment to prioritizing gender inclusion, and she’s seen “big inroads” made in the last 10 years. The amount of women in executive positions has been growing every year. Through the grassroots Women’s Groups across Scotiabank, female employees at the manager and director levels get opportunities to network with peers and gain access to female role models in senior leadership positions. Scotiabank has also partnered with Plan Canada’s Because I’m a Girl, a global organization that promotes education, health, safety and economic security for girls in developing countries.
“We are lucky in Canada that women don’t face some of the challenges that women face globally, like not having access to education, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be a bigger voice in the bigger picture and really help to further the cause around education and safe spaces for women,” says Maria.
As well, Scotiabank’s commitment to diversity goes beyond gender, ensuring inclusion and opportunities for all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or ability. In fact, Scotiabank was named Canada’s Best Diversity Employer by Mediacorp Canada in 2015 and was also recognized as one of the World’s Best Multinational Workplaces by Great Places To Work.
“We want to create an environment where everyone can be their authentic self at work because it’s only then that someone will speak up, that they will participate, that they will be fully engaged and bring the highest value into the workplace,” says Maria.
“There is no one look, feel or sound of a leader, that’s what we need people to understand.”
Scotiabank’s partnership with Women of Influence is another positive step towards promoting inclusion and diversity in the workplace, says Maria, because it’s in line with her view that individual actions can create collective change. She says there’s a quote from Spider-Man that sums it up quite well:
“‘With great power comes great responsibility,’” she says.
“How can we ask for change if we’re not part of that change? And that’s what Women of Influence is all about – it’s all of us mobilizing to influence others to do the right thing.”