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Getting on Boards: Shirley Dawe

Shirley Dawe strives to get more women on boards through the willingness to ask questions, remain enthusiastic, and always maintain grace under pressure.

By: Darla Murray | Photography by: Sean Sprague

The year was 1969, the minimum wage in Canada was $1.30, Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister, and 23-year-old Shirley Dawe was about to embark on a career path taken by very few women before her.

“It sounds like it’s almost the Dark Ages,” says Dawe, “but when I began in ’69 as an executive trainee at the Bay, the world was really very different.”

Born and raised in Vancouver and educated in Economics at the University of British Columbia and McGill University, Dawe was told upon being hired at The Hudson’s Bay Company that no matter how good she was as an assistant buyer, she would never be invited to be a buyer. Why? Because she was married. And married women got pregnant and left the workforce to raise their children.

Discontent with the status quo of her female contemporaries, Dawe grew to embrace the budding opportunities available to women in the 1970s and deviated from the traditional path. She spent the next 43 years serving on the boards of twelve corporations including Oshkosh B’Gosh, Moore Corporation and General Foods Canada, as well as seven not-for-profit organizations. In addition, she built a successful consulting practice, Shirley Dawe Associates (SDA), where she has worked with some of North America’s leading retailers. Oh, and during all of this, she had a baby.

“I worked until two weeks before the baby was born and I came back to work two weeks after,” says Dawe. “My water broke on a Friday night and I crossed my legs because I still had [work] to do.”

At that time she had five men and one woman reporting to her and she worried that a baby would be considered an impediment. “I had the baby, then came back to work and I kind of pretended it didn’t happen,” she says, slightly taken aback by the honesty of her statement. “I guess I was pretty focused.”

It was that focus, combined with an appetite for knowledge and physical stamina that propelled her career. While at the Bay, Dawe rose to the position of National General Manager and led the marketing, merchandising and procurement teams for six divisions nation-wide, impressively generating more than half of the company’s revenues. She also went on to become the first female senior officer of the company.

She left the Bay in the mid-’80s, but not before catching the eye of Meg Mitchell, an executive recruiter whose practice was solely devoted to getting women on boards. Mitchell, coupled with a few forward-thinking CEOs, set out to refute the commonly believed notion that there weren’t any competent women in Canada to sit on boards.

In 1986 Dawe accepted an invited to sit on her first board. She would be the only female, and youngest, board member for CB Park Inc. of Montreal. “At that time directors really were the parsley on the salmon,” says Dawe. “We were color but we didn’t serve a purpose of taste.” The board work was perfunctory then; it wasn’t until the ’90s that committee work was considered important and governance best practices were embraced by corporate Canada.

“In those early days, my experience was similar to that espoused by other female directors,” says Dawe. “You would say something you thought was relatively intelligent and it was if you were speaking a foreign language.”

However, she took on the responsibility with optimism and finesse; instead of fighting the men who stood in her way, Dawe strived to work with them.

It is important for women to use a bit of grace when trying to attain board seats, she says. “We have a critical mass of outstanding executives, but I hear sometimes a little hand wringing or finger pointing and ‘Oh why can’t I get on a board?’ And I do get concerned because that tone and that approach is not going to help you be noticed in a positive way.”

In fact, all of Dawe’s mentors and champions were men, especially her husband of 45 years who she says understood and supported her career aspirations.

“I was never too proud to reach out to somebody around the table and ask a question after a meeting when I didn’t understand something,” says Dawe. “I was just so thrilled to have the opportunities and I was passionate about everything I did.”

It is this willingness, tactfulness and attitude that helps keep Dawe at the forefront of evolving best practices in governance. She is presently the director and chairman of the Compensation Committee for Birks & Mayors Inc.

In what she considers Act Three of her career trajectory, Dawe says she is transitioning from a “power of position” to a “power of influence.” After concluding all but one of her relationships on boards, Dawe is now committed to accelerating the pace at which women are invited onto boards.

“It’s a competitive advantage to have diversity at the table,” says Dawe, “because in the broadest sense it adds a huge amount of value to the conversation. Having just one group of human beings around the table, mainly 55-plus male Caucasians, provides only one perspective.”

Plus, she adds, since females make half of the consuming decisions, it makes good business sense to give credence to their opinions and ideas. While companies like Birks & Mayors and The National Bank recognized very early the benefit of women on their boards, there are still many companies, particularly mining and engineering businesses, with zero female presence. “We’re at around fourteen-and-a-half percent,” says Dawe with regards to the percentage of women in board positions, “and we have been that way for some period of time.”

While marital status and motherhood were obstacles Dawe faced during the early phases of her career, she says the barriers that prevent women from sitting on boards now concern the economic downturn and the reluctance to address gender diversity.

When asked how she got onto her first board, Dawe replies, “I was very good at my job. There were very few women who had the breadth and depth of operating bottom line experience that I had. And of course I was national in scope, had a lot of international sourcing experience or overseeing it, and I was on the consumer marketing side. I never said, ‘No,’ which was not always good but I had this huge physical stamina, and I was very enthusiastic. The opportunities just kept falling in front of me.”

Opportunities that continue to grow for women on boards. In March 2012, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made an announcement that he will implement an advisory council made up of leaders from the private and public sectors to promote the participation of women on corporate boards.

“It’s very exciting that a conservative government—that sometimes gets castigated as not being women friendly—would come out with this announcement of establishing a council to focus on not just diversity, but gender diversity,” says Dawe. This type of government support is, in her opinion, a revolution. “Huge changes have taken place over the past 40 years,” she says. “The opportunities for women are there.” And Dawe’s goal at this point in her career is to help women harness those opportunities through her coaching practice and educational seminars and to guide them down the path that she helped pave.