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Vice-President of English Services at CBC Kirstine Stewart is not shying away from her feminine side

CBC English programming supremo Kirstine Stewart is unafraid to embrace her feminine side.

By: Cynthia Moore McGovern | Photography by: Tom Sandler

Kirstine Stewart is young, blonde and beautiful. Since this January, the 42-year-old also happens to be the new executive vice-president of English Services at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the highest-ranking employee at the CBC and the first woman ever to fill that top role.

It’s tempting to dissect each of Stewart’s enviable attributes by either applauding or questioning her about her rapid rise at the CBC, built upon a successful career in Canadian media spanning the past 20 years. The executive’s approach to work and life as a woman, however, is much more holistic: embrace your true self and you will win.

And Stewart has chalked up some pretty impressive wins. When she first arrived at CBC Television in 2006 as general manager (also the first female in that high-ranking role), she remembers making her first presentation to introduce a new fall lineup of television shows. From 2006 and every year thereafter, the executive championed a major sea change in Canadian content at the CBC, introducing cooler and quirkier shows such as the popular Dragon’s Den, The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos and Little Mosque on the Prairie, among others. Audiences raved about the revitalized programming and ratings and rankings soared.

Host of his now eponymous talk show and Stewart’s CBC cohort, Stroumboulopoulos is also a fan: “Kirstine Stewart is obviously smart as hell and incredibly well respected. She perfectly understands the mandate of CBC, how important it is to Canadians and what it is capable of. She strikes the ideal balance between decision-making and trusting the decisions of the people she hires – and you don’t have to look very long to see the incredible impact she’s had on the Canadian star system, talent development and programming.”

Stewart says she has learned to embrace her feminine side after years of watching working women trying not to be women and failing. She believes women and men each possess specific attributes that can be leveraged in business when they are better understood and accepted.

Men can push an idea through to fruition simply through sheer conviction, she says. They are excellent decision-makers and may not believe that all ideas need to be heard. Women can draw people in to complex discussions and after many ideas are considered, will build and promote the best idea or plan. As a bonus, they’ve already got the support of the team and are off to a winning start.

“It is unfortunate when you don’t take advantage of something that is a pure, natural attribute and use it to your strength instead of trying to bury it and come up with behaviours that are indicative of someone who you are not. It’s very important to be true to yourself and to your own gut.”

Translating even such clear attributes as Stewart’s programming wins into the top job at CBC has been an extraordinary feat – and all the more dazzling by her observation that after the first presentation in her new role, Stewart says bloggers and journalists reported more on her shoes than the shows that built the channel’s resurgence. But pundits wasted no time seizing on what sets a female executive apart as an opening to declare her frivolous. The lover of all things beautiful – film, fine art and fashion, was wearing a bold pair of stilettos, no different than she might wear any other day, yet that brief moment of backlash, she says, caught her completely off guard. At first, she feared that her fashionable choice in footwear had been a horrible mistake that had made a horrible first impression. Then her gut instincts kicked in.

“I thought, wait a minute. That was unfair. I didn’t objectify myself; they objectified me. I like these high heels, I wear these high heels. Get used to it.”

Some media chatter about the new chief is inevitable. The life-long achiever – who skipped grades and graduated from university at age 19 – always jumps into her roles with both feet, high heels and all. She was hired right out of university into a girl Friday role working for Isme Bennie, a leader in her own right in Canadian media and television distribution, who her protégée describes as still going strong. Stewart remains grateful to Isme for modeling business expertise, leadership qualities and how to win in a world of media full of men. Stewart paid close attention to the attributes her boss modeled over the years and when Isme moved on to a new role outside of the organization, she successfully lobbied for the younger executive to take over her role as president of distribution.

Now, as a top media business leader and even as a mother to daughters aged 14 and 10, Stewart’s advice to future women of influence remains the same: embrace your own attributes and seize every opportunity that is presented to you. “It’s always easy for someone to say, ‘oh she’s ambitious.’ It’s never just about ambition. It’s about believing in yourself, being part of something you truly believe in and wanting to see it work.”