Our Views

An interview with Maureen Farrow, economist and trailblazer for women – Part One

Maureen Farrow doesn’t need to be reminded of women’s struggle for professional equality. The globally-renowned independent economist and president of Economap Inc., has been challenging (and overcoming) gender bias and stereotypes since the start of her 50-year career.

Farrow—who for many years has provided independent economic data and perspective to the Newport Investment Committee — has built a vast network of contacts within the world’s leading central banks and institutions, while also blazing a trail as the first woman on several corporate boards, professional organizations and companies. Her story is one of resilience and determination; an inspiration to women across Canada who aspire to the upper echelons in their field.

In honour of International Women’s Day and this year’s theme, #ChooseToChallenge, our Chief Marketing Officer Kelly Willis sat down with Farrow for a wide-ranging interview. They discussed everything from the ballet injury that steered Farrow towards a career in economics, to the skills she used to bridge the gender pay gap in the 1960s and carve a successful niche in a male-dominated sector.

KW: Maureen, thank you for speaking with us and agreeing to share your story. I think it is one that is both inspiring and illuminating given this year’s International Women’s Day theme: #ChooseToChallenge gender bias and inequality. It seems to me your entire career has been a lived experience of challenging gender bias. When you started many years ago, there weren’t many female economists, and there still aren’t. What or who inspired you to pursue a career in this male-dominated field?

MF: Well, it actually came about as the result of an accident. I had trained as a ballet dancer but following an accident needed to refocus. So as a result, I had to develop a new career. It was my father who said to me, “Well you’re out of hospital and you can walk around now, and you know, that’s one career over so you’ve got to get a new one.” And I thought then that I might study history at university, but he said, “You’ve got your whole life to read history.” (laughs). And so he was really the guiding person who channeled me towards economics.

KW: So, in 1966 you graduated with your economics degree. How did you start to build your career?

MF: It was still not that long after the Second World War and there was a lot of hardship in England at the time. And if you were a woman, you were encouraged to pursue what were the “traditional jobs for girls” at that time – supportive roles like nursing or teaching. The career advisors kept channeling me into these roles and they were very surprised when I kept saying, “I don’t want to do those things, I want to go into business.”

KW: You were swimming against the tide.

MF: Yes, I was. And the big companies (employers) all were looking for graduates to join their organizations but they used to want to have the men in their management training programs. And I thought, well why can’t I go into management training? So I applied. And I had job offers from several of them, but two things bothered me. The training being offered was channeled towards human resources and the salaries offered were less than my male contemporaries. You have to remember this was the mid-sixties. I thought I’m going to challenge this and so I said, “You know, I think you should be paying me more than the men because I am unique.” They said, “Why is that? We’re taking a big risk on you.” I said, “No, I’m taking the risk. It’s my career. And I’m taking the risk that it works out because you’ve never done this before.” I ended up getting paid 200£ more than the guys which became the big joke when we would go out for beers after work. The guys would say, “Well, you should be buying because you’re paid more!” And so that was my first job with General Electric in the UK. And that was a good decision because I didn’t get channeled into HR. Instead, I worked in industrial market research and picked up a lot of front-line business experience.

KW: I love that. What a great story and some of the lessons are applicable regardless of the field. So, a few years later, you left your high paying job in London to come to Canada. That was another bold move.

MF: Yes, and it was kind of a shock really because there was no industrial market research here. But I started looking for a job as a full-time economist. The obvious path was government, but I didn’t want to go into the government. So I found a small consulting company and I joined them because it was one of the few companies in Toronto that was doing economics for the private sector.

KW: You have an independent streak!

MF: Yes, well, you learn that as a dancer. Your success depends entirely on what you can do. It’s nothing to do with anyone else. You can’t pretend anything; you have to do it. And if you can’t do it, you’re not going to be there very long.

KW: That’s something to keep in mind at every job. Did you ever feel that there was added pressure on you as an economist who is female? Did you face resistance?

MF: Yes and no. I think you experience it (resistance) until you have proven yourself. And in all honesty that is true for men and women. Until you demonstrate you can do the work professionally at a very high level and that you bring other attributes with that.

KW: Like?

MF: Well, to be able to listen, to build consensus. Often, I was in a position where we were developing (economic) forecasts and you can become incredibly wedded to your views if you’re not careful. So I think you have to listen, be cooperative and able to be a team player.

Another benefit I got out of my ballet training was that I learned to communicate. Whether that’s on a podium or in a small circle. And I think that’s been part of the pluses I’ve had and something that’s important for male or female economists. In fact, when I look at the women I’ve seen who perform very well in the field of economics, something that’s common amongst us is we have an ability to absorb the information, integrate, package and communicate it in a way that is relevant for the audience.

Women have come a long way in our field. I mean, look at Carolyn Wilkinson. She served as the Senior Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada. Similarly, Janet Yellen is an icon for women economists. She served as the Chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board and now as Treasury Secretary in the Biden administration. And there are many more women who have broken through.

KW: Speaking of central banks, I remember you telling us once that you were on holiday in Australia and on your way back you had a stopover in Japan. So you called up the Bank of Japan and popped in for a briefing, as one does of course! That was several years ago but it struck me then and now what extraordinary access and networks you have developed.

MF: I think it’s very important to build networks, particularly early in your career. I’ve been very fortunate. I became a partner in the consulting firm Curry Coopers & Lybrand in 1981. This gave me a global network because I was one of the few female partners in the firm worldwide. So I was able to build a very large network of corporate and senior government contacts — central bankers, finance and trade officials. I was also fortunate to be able to serve as President of the CD Howe Institute in the late 1980s. This allowed me to add to my contacts. That’s how I could make a phone call to the Bank of Japan and say, “I’m here. Have you got any time? I’d like to come in.”

KW: Another way that you have been a trailblazer for women is in your role as a corporate director. You have been the first female elected to a number of different boards and professional organizations. And I know you’re asked this a lot: What advice do you have for a woman who wants to pursue corporate directorships?

MF: When you are, say, in your mid-40s, this is a good time to start thinking about a path to becoming a corporate director. For starters, you need to think about where your professional expertise fits. What sectors are the best match for your skill sets? In my case, I don’t think my skill sets are necessarily the most important for, say, a mining company, as opposed to an investment company. So get clear on where you can add value.

I think, today, any young woman who wants to become a corporate director should do the professional courses that are available. They weren’t available when I first joined boards back in 1992 and I had to learn by trial and error.

You also need to develop a CV and it has to be different from any one that you’ve ever produced before. It’s not what so much about what you’ve done or can do. When you’re going to be looked at as a potential Board member, I think it’s important to say how your skill sets and experience can make a value-added contribution to a company’s performance and strategy at the Board level. What can you bring with you that can add and contribute? Because of course you’re not running the company. It’s different from a management role.

You also want to start building board experience by serving on community and not-for-profit boards. Lastly, I would urge any woman to seek out a mentor with whom you can discuss ideas. When you have built your skills sets and experience, you can start getting your name in front of hiring contacts and headhunters.

Read Part Two of our interview with Maureen Farrow when we discuss the importance of financial independence for women, how she looks at managing her own money and the financial lessons she is trying to instill in her granddaughter.