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Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce

Niagara women: ‘We need a level playing field’

Niagara business woman Cyndi LoForti-Lepp was one of hundreds of people who attended the the Women in Niagara Council’s annual Women in Business Awards on Friday. Phoot by Mike DiBattista, Niagara Falls Review

On the same week a report ranked St. Catharines/Niagara near the bottom of major metropolitan areas for women to work and live, many of the region’s top business women had reason to celebrate.

The Women in Niagara Council’s annual Women in Business Awards recognized some of the area’s top female entrepreneurs in a region which finished dead last in full-time employment for women, according to a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Of the 25 cities ranked, only Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Oshawa and Windsor fared worse.

The top three cities were Victoria, Kingston and London.

While Niagara women are well-educated, ranking ninth, it’s a matter of finding opportunities, says Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce president Mishka Balsom.

“Women have to leave Niagara to pursue those careers,” she says, referring to an upcoming economic summit (Oct. 27) which will look at the “myths and realities” of the job sector in Niagara.

“The question is, do we have enough people for the jobs that are here, or do we have the jobs but not the people that can actually fill those jobs? It’s a situation we need to get ahead of.”

Niagara-on-the-Lake interior designer Cyndi LoForti-Lepp says it’s “key” for more women to get involved.

“Whether that’s in politics, in the municipal level, regional level…we have to be involved to make change,” she says. “We have to drive that forward.

“The reasons women have been successful that I know and work alongside of is because we have been involved. We haven’t sat on the sidelines and complained, we’ve said, ‘Excuse me, you need to pay attention to us.’ We need a level playing field.”

The report ranked Niagara 23 in leadership, citing a lack of women in political positions. In St. Catharines, women make up only 13 percent of city council.

“It’s always a very real challenge for women to be involved in politics because of our commitment to our family,” she says. “However, we still need to make the effort to get involved.”

For singer Juliet Dunn, co-founder of the Niagara Jazz Festival, Niagara has been nothing but positive.

“I just kind of stopped in Niagara,” she says. “I always wanted to pursue Montreal because I lived in France and I’m bilingual, and when people say ‘Why don’t you live in Montreal?’…well, because things are going pretty good here.”

She finds the area flush with “strong women’s groups,” but agrees there needs to be more women on Niagara councils.

“More of a 50/50 than a 20/80 split,” she says.

Caron Strauss-Blom, owner of Citrus Boutique in St. Catharines, disagrees with the report.

“I am strongly supported by local women,” she says.

“I so don’t agree with (the report). You’ve got to work at it, it’s not easy. We do a lot of social media and whatnot, but in order to get you have to give.”

Rhonda Taylor, director of member service with PenFinancial Credit Union, finds the opportunities in Niagara are actually attracting people from outside the region, in contrast to what the report suggests.

“Once people get here and see what there is to offer and the great opportunities, while limited, that it is a great place,” she says. “You have to get a bit of fight in you to make sure that we’re relevant.”

Balsom says the factors which contributed to Niagara’s low ranking “have been there for a long time,” and the culture won’t change unless women occupy more leadership roles.

“If there’s a balance around the board table, if there’s a balance in an organization, it usually reflects in the decision-making,” she says. “There are very progressive boards that adhere to that. We at the GNCC are very close to that, close to 50/50, the best we’ve ever been.”

Winners of the Women in Business Awards, held at the Crowne Plaza Friday:

  • Community Spirit Award: Cathy Berkhout-Bosse, My Pelham
  • Business of Science & Technology Award: Sandra Buffet, Jordan Engineering
  • Business Leadership Award: Carolyne Watts, General Motors
  • Emerging Business Award: Allie Hughes, Hughes & Co.
  • Cultural Arts Award: Juliet Dunn, Niagara Jazz Festival
  • Social Enterprise Award: Stacy Elia, Grimsby Benevolent Fund
  • Excellence in Tourism Award: Karen Whitty, 13 Street Winery
  • Lifetime Achievement Award: Mary Turner, Canadian Tire Bank

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