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Women in Capital Markets’ Martha Fell on standing out

Martha Fell is pictured in a handout photo courtesy of Hollinrake Photography. (Hollinrake Photography)

Dressed head to toe in hot pink, Martha Fell stands out. She doesn’t look like your typical capital markets professional, but then again Fell is no wallflower and certainly doesn’t get too hung up on stereotypes.

In finance for 15 years, she stuck out immediately as a minority on the trading floor. But throughout her career she consistently “leaned into the table” and looked for opportunities to get noticed even more.

“I put my hand up. I sought a voice,” said Fell, who left her career at CIBC to join advocacy group Women in Capital Markets. Ever since then, she’s been raising her hand up high on behalf of women in the financial services industry.

In June, Fell will step down after taking on the role as the group’s chief executive in 2008. Reflecting on her tenure, she notes the statistics haven’t shown much change. Last May, the group released an analysis that showed despite more than a decade of advocacy and good intentions, women continue to struggle to break through the senior leadership ranks in Canadian capital markets, as well as into the industry.

But on the ground, attitudes appear to be different, says Fell, and eventually she hopes the numbers will reflect that.

Below is a condensed and edited version of an interview with Fell during WCM’s Vinifera event on Tuesday.

On a personal level, why was it important to be a part of WCM?

“First and foremost, I had a lot of unique role models in my life at a very early age. My mom was in the banking business and finance in general. When I first had an opportunity on Bay Street, I had taken a business degree with the sole purpose of having a career probably in the finance sector.

My personal experience was one that was blessed with role models. I sought mentorship. I do think that I was in a typical trading floor environment where the majority of my colleagues were men. It didn’t seem to affect me to a certain extent, but sure there were some differences in the early 90s that don’t exist as much today in the culture that exists on trading floors.

If I look at the young women that I’ve had the opportunity to encourage in the business and to mentor in the business, even they are seeing significant changes in the time they’ve been on Bay Street. I think that while that doesn’t play out in the numbers we’ve studied, anecdotally, it says a huge amount.”

In terms of your work with WCM, what have you been most proud and disappointed about?

“Not a lot of disappointments, other than perhaps not seeing in my tenure changes to the statistics. But I think that overshadows the successes. I think that’s led by the stakeholders and the support we have. All the biggest institutions that employ the vast majority of people in the capital markets are big investors in Women in Capital Markets. They invest their time and their people, and they make the value of what the organization brings to members and practices in institutions very real. They look at us as an opportunity for the women in firms to gain access to role models, mentors and networking. It’s the conversations, it’s the relationships we’ve built and the constant commitment that we see from those stakeholders that is what I am most proud of.”

What’s your advice to women seeking careers?

“If you want to talk about work-life balance, first of all I don’t believe in the topic. I believe in work-life choices. I believe if women are caught up in that rollercoaster of trying to sort out how to balance family life with career, it all comes down to the choices you make. You have to make choices that are right for you. But the choices aren’t forever.You can make a choice today for what’s right for you and change your mind a year from now and make a different one. You have to find the flexibility within your career, your firm, your family in order to shift your choices in order to suit what’s right for you.

Don’t get hung up on stereotypes. I think gender bias exists, but I think it’s falling down. That elephant in the room is starting to make more headlines. I think there’s a lot more attention on the counter of that, which is gender intelligence. I think a lot more conversations on that topic will actually eliminate the myths and stereotypes.”