Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: Women in economic development can have it all, just not all at once

Michelle Madden / July 6, 2015

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The Higher ED Blog: Women in economic development can have it all, just not all at once

On June 18th, 21 women (and one man) came to downtown Toronto to meet other women in economic development and to learn strategies for surviving in what was recently a man’s field. The Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDCO)-hosted event was held on the top floor of the Ontario Investment and Trade Centre, a location perhaps symbolic of the fact that economic development is being performed and led by more women than ever before. Women now account for 47 per cent of the EDCO’s membership, 43 per cent of whom are in management roles.

Women are clearly making their mark in economic development, but they still face gendered challenges. In order to share strategies for overcoming these challenges, the event featured a panel component where attendees could pick the brains of three women in senior roles: Belinda Wick-Graham, Business and Economic Manager at the Town of Minto; Cindy Symons-Milroy; Director of Economic Development at the City of Oshawa; and Sheila Botting; Partner & Canadian Real Estate Leader at Deloitte. Balancing the demands of the job with family, working with still-male-dominated industries, and standing out among male peers were all hot topics.


Economic development is a get-out-there-and-talk-to-people kind of field, drawing type-A personalities to its ranks. Ambitious type-A women are committed to getting the job done, which often means working long hours and traveling. This kind of lifestyle can clash with family life, leaving many women (who often feel pressure to do it all) stretched too thin in every direction and feeling guilty about it. The panelists acknowledged that the balancing act is always going to be a challenge, but they’ve found strategies to make it easier.

The first step is to manage your priorities and expectations. It’s important to decide what you want from life and your career, and to understand that you can’t focus all of your energy on both at the same time. That might mean delaying some career goals by a few years while the kids are young, and catching up when they’re older.  Or it might mean never reaching the top of the ladder if it means sacrificing too much family time. That said, it’s important not to let other people make the decision to sacrifice seniority on your behalf. Trudy Parsons, the event facilitator and Millier Dickinson Blais’ Director of Workforce Development, encouraged the room to recognize gender discrimination in the workplace and to challenge assumptions that hold you back while lesser-qualified—but more available—candidates leapfrog ahead.

Second, when work time is creeping in on personal time, take charge and push back. Sheila could be away from home all the time, but makes a point to balance the time she spends out of town or at evening events. On a day-to-day basis, one audience member said that with twins at home and a husband with a demanding job, she has to leave at 4:30pm, no exceptions. Sometimes that causes conflict at work, but getting home to the family is more important and so she makes it happen.

Those times when work has to be the priority, there are ways to manage that too. Belinda frequently hits the road and loves doing it. Fortunately, her husband is very supportive and understands that she loves her job as well as her family. They make a point to Skype in the evenings, and they reach out to local family members for babysitting and support when they need it. Cindy also uses that tactic, adding a couple extra days to business travel to make it a family trip.

Navigating the boy’s club

Since female economic developers often find themselves among male colleagues and partners, there was also lots of interest in how to navigate boys’ clubs. Sheila, who frequently works with the male-dominated commercial real estate industry, was on the hook for much of the advice. She had to look for ways to find common ground with men who had different interests. She decided that the best strategy was to appreciate that she would never be ‘one of guys’ and instead play to her strengths. She worked hard, made herself a valuable team member, and refused to change who she was to fit in socially.

When the topic of drinking at evening events was raised, it was suggested that alcohol should be limited or avoided. Robert Lamb, EDCO’s president and the Township of Tay’s CAO, echoed that sentiment, noting that those with clear heads can learn more and demonstrate professionalism, no matter the situation.

Standing out

While women are highly competent, they are often hindered in the workplace by a lack of confidence. The issue of confidence in front of the community and the media was raised and the panelists said it’s mostly about knowing your stuff. All three said as long as you know your facts, know the message, and prepare for worst case scenarios, confidence will come naturally. If things get ugly, the most important thing to remember is that it’s not personal. When Cindy made this point, heads were nodding around the room. Women are highly susceptible to taking professional criticism personally but, as Belinda noted, if you try to avoid criticism, you’ll never accomplish anything.

To further build confidence, and stand out among peers, attendees were encouraged to brush up on their education. EDCO’s CEO, Heather Lalonde, said that more and more municipalities are looking for certifications and education when they are recruiting, making professional development an important part of career progression.  Sheila added that a trail of letters behind your name can lend credibility, and recommends that approach if it’s within reach.

In economic development, Canadian practitioners have access to two designations: the Economic Developers Association of Canada (EDAC)’s EcD and the International Economic Development Council (IEDC)’s CEcD. Those with the EcD can upgrade it to an EcD(F) by taking the Year 3 Fellowship program. Economic developers can also earn more specialized designations related to their job functions, like the Canadian Public Relations Society’s Accredited in Public Relations (APR) or Business Retention & Expansion International’s Business Retention and Expansion Professional (BREP). Those looking for a graduate degree in the field can consider the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development master’s program or a business-focused degree like an MBA.

Final musings

For women in economic development, the outlook is good. Women now account for nearly half of EDCO’s membership, and with women joining the field in large numbers (and making up almost 60 per cent of post-secondary graduates), that proportion is likely to increase.  There is even a sense that women are making the profession better: making it more inclusive and offering skills in relationship-building that are highly developed.

However, women still only account for less than a quarter of management roles. This is the next frontier and one that women are more than qualified to take on. When asked for their top piece of advice, the panelists advised women to invest in professional development, build social capital in the field, and to strategically plan future career moves. With hard work, smart career/ family planning, and a double dose of confidence, the old boys’ club is sure to become a distant memory.


About the author

Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the LED master’s program.  She has authored a number of the articles in this series on behalf of the students, and has published several of her own blogs on as well.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.


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