Trailblazing bank executive Harriet Stairs has been named to the Order of Canada by the Governor General.
“First of all I was very surprised. Second of all, I feel very, very honoured,” Stairs said in an interview on Sunday.
Stairs is being recognized for “advancing women’s opportunities within the financial sector, and for creating equitable and inclusive policies within corporate and community-based initiatives,” according to a citation on the website of Governor General Mary Simon.
Stairs has been married for 21 years and has two children from a previous relationship. She and husband Edward Mooney split their time between their homes in NOTL and Toronto, though Stairs says she has spent more time in NOTL these past two years thanks to the pandemic and will eventually move here full-time.
She has been a professional and personal advocate for equitable corporate and social policies since she started working for the Bank of Montreal in 1967.
“I never thought that I would ever join a bank. I knew nothing about banking. Banking sounded so straight, so boring,” Stairs said with a laugh.
The Montreal native was hired as a hostess for Expo 67. “I wanted to be a part of that because it was happening in my hometown. Montreal was just bubbling with the first expo fair,” she said.
Stairs made an impression during her summer job with the bank and was rehired for a full-time position. By the late 1990s, she was executive vice-president of human resources and was having a positive and major effect on the corporate structure of the bank.
Stairs notes that when she began her career with the bank some 70 per cent of its staff were female, yet there were no women in the senior management ranks.
“When I started out there wasn’t even a woman in middle management,” she said.
“So every rung (that I climbed) up the corporate ladder was always greeted with, ‘Oh, you made it!’ Like something special had happened and I thought, ‘Hmm. I don’t think anything special has happened, I just got promoted.’”
Stairs said she worked with the bank to implement flexible benefits so women could get the same benefits as their male peers,
“It was the first flexible benefits in Canada,” she said.
She also worked to change the systemic succession planning which made it possible for women and men to be at the top of the corporation, she said.
In 1994, Stairs and the Bank of Montreal received the Catalyst Award, the first company outside of the United States to receive it and the first bank in North America. The award recognizes businesses that show initiative in promoting career and leadership development for women.
Stairs is proud to think the changes she helped introduce at BMO had a ripple effect on other corporations.
“When we won these awards for things we did internally to change the culture, other banks thought they better smarten up or they might lose their good women and their good men because a good man also likes to work in a good culture,” she said.
“But it wasn’t only the bank. It had ramifications throughout Canada, which I think is an important thing.”
After taking early retirement from the bank, Stairs focused all her energies on non-profit volunteer work.
“I didn’t need any more corporate life. I really wanted to give back and start trying to help other entities,” she said.
Her extensive volunteer work since retirement is a whole other reason the 75-year-old is receiving the Order of Canada.
Stairs was on McGill University's board of governors for 10 years and she sat on the boards of Ryerson University, the governing body for the community colleges of Ontario, and the Shaw Guild.
She has also been involved with Sheena’s Place, a non-profit that helps people with eating disorders, and was chair of the Psychology Foundation of Canada.
Stairs has also been involved with the Little Smile Theatre, which puts on performances in retirement homes, Strong Minds Strong Kids, Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts, and Portage, a program to help individuals suffering from addiction.
This staggering volunteer ethic begs one question: where does Stairs passion for positive change come from?
“From my parents, particularly my mother,” Stairs said.
“I have two sisters, and my mother always told us we were going to have to look after ourselves and be educated and work hard.”
Stairs said her mother was always involved in charitable work and her grandfather was mayor of Montreal.
“For our family, giving back was a way of life, so I just kind of picked it up.”
Stairs also credits her early education at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Montreal as teaching her and other young women to be professional and community leaders.
While the professional world has become more welcoming of women and diversity in general, Stairs said she knows the fight is not over.
“There’s still so much to do. This is an endless work,” she said.
She feels giving time to volunteer organizations enriches the individual.
“That’s what people don’t understand. If you make the time you will get so much more out of it and you will learn so much,” she said.
Stairs said one of her best learning experiences was working with youth suffering from addiction through Portage.
“They’re fabulous young people. It’s just that they’ve got an addiction. We all have problems in life, you don’t write someone off because they have an addiction. You help them.”
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report