Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Colleen Sidford's leadership program resulted in five times more women being promoted within Ontario Power Generation

Ontario Power Generation is an Ontario-based electricity company and one of the largest power suppliers in North America, producing the energy used in most homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses in Ontario. It has roughly 11,700 employees, just 23 percent of whom are female. Colleen Sidford, who joined in 2003 as treasurer and eventually became the chief investment officer, sought to change that, and she got hooked. “I thought I’d stay for five years, but I stayed 10,” she says.
Ontario Power Generation is an Ontario-based electricity company and one of the largest power suppliers in North America, producing the energy used in most homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses in Ontario. It has roughly 11,700 employees, just 23 percent of whom are female. Colleen Sidford, who joined in 2003 as treasurer and eventually became the chief investment officer, sought to change that, and she got hooked. “I thought I’d stay for five years, but I stayed 10,” she says.

When Colleen Sidford joined Ontario Power Generation Inc. (OPG) in 2003, there were few women at the top of the organization. “Even though we had women coming in, something happened, and they weren’t reaching the senior-management levels,” says Sidford, who joined the firm as treasurer and later became chief investment officer.

She researched gender equality at other companies, and she began to realize that OPG wasn’t alone. “Many companies in many industries were having similar issues with gender diversity, and it looked like the problem resulted not from a lack of technical knowledge but from more subtle things such as image, speaking ability, and assertiveness,” Sidford says. She immediately began thinking about how to address the issue.

At the time, Sidford was a member of a group of senior executives called Women At The Top, which sought to get more women in executive positions. At one meeting, all 25 members were challenged to find one thing they could do at their respective organizations to make a difference. Sidford came up with the idea of a leadership training program for women at OPG and pitched it to the company’s senior executive team. “It was pretty controversial at the time because training had always been a human resources function,” she says, “but in the end, the CEO agreed to it.”

The program, called The emPOWERed Women, ran one day a month for four months, with each day of training focused on a distinct area. The first module, Taking the Stage, taught confidence because “a lot of women don’t believe they have the expertise to put themselves forward for jobs or projects,” Sidford says. The second module, Writing and Speaking, taught women how to develop a strong message and make it understood with few words. The third module, Public Speaking, taught women how to speak assertively in front of audiences of all sizes. The fourth module, Image and Presence, taught women how to create a personal brand so that “people understand you’re a leader just by looking at you,” Sidford says.

By The Numbers

11,700
Approximate number of OPG’s employees

90
Percentage of OPG’s employees who are members of unions

23
Percentage of OPG’s employees who are female

4
Percentage of OPG’s employees who were promoted over a five-year period

20
Percentage of OPG’s female employees who were promoted over the same five-year period after participating in The emPOWERed Women leadership program

The original pilot program for 45 women was so successful that OPG decided to expand it, and when external facilitators proved too expensive, Sidford simply recruited volunteers from within. By 2009, the program was made available to all the women at OPG, and they couldn’t get enough of it. “We offered two sessions a year and could only handle 75 employees per session, so when we announced that we were taking applications, the programs filled up within an hour,” Sidford says, noting that more than 600 women have been trained over the past five years.

It was clear, Sidford says, that there was increased engagement among women in the company, but she wanted hard data that would show the success of the program, so each year, she had the company track the women who participated against the general employee population. Over the five years the program ran, 20 percent of the women were promoted, as opposed to just four percent of the general employee population. The achievement won Sidford recognition from Catalyst Canada as a Business Champion for Diversity.

“It was a great coup because the Catalyst brand is so highly recognized in the business community, and it was also the first time a nonfinancial company had been selected,” she says.

When Sidford retired from OPG in 2013 to serve as president of Women in Nuclear, emPOWERed was wound down because of restructuring, budget cuts, and the perception that it was inappropriate to offer such a program to only a portion of the employee population. Before she left, though, Sidford managed to transition the main tenets of the program to a new one directed at all emerging talent, both male and female. “We called it The Unwritten Rules, and the content was just adjusted to be gender neutral,” Sidford says. Now anyone will have a chance at empowerment.

Colleen Sidford, here pictured at a Women in Nuclear conference, used her former role as CIO to help other women attain leadership positions.
Colleen Sidford, here pictured at a Women in Nuclear conference, used her former role as CIO to help other women attain leadership positions.