January 29, 2024 | Alumni
Leadership, advocacy and balance: A Q&A with alum Susan Allen
By Tara Clemens
Photo credit: Tom Wang Photography.
Since graduating from the University of Toronto Mississauga, Susan Allen (BA 1982 UTM) has been on an impressive career journey, earning global recognition as a leader in her field. Her accolades include being named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women and the prestigious Catalyst Canada’s Business Leader Award, among others.
An inspirational trailblazer for women in the business world, Allen continues to advocate for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) initiatives in the workplace, even in retirement. She currently serves on four corporate boards as an Independent Director and Audit Committee Chair.
Allen is also the celebrated author Count Me In: A Trailblazer’s Triumph in a World not Built for Her, a book intended to help young professional women navigate their careers and motherhood. She sat down with us to talk about her incredible career, the importance of work-life balance, and how, as a mother of two, she learned to overcome the ever-present “mom guilt.”
Susan, congratulations on your recognition from the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) with the 2023 Canadian Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (CEDI) Award for Directors. How does it feel to receive this award?
Thank you! Receiving an award highlighting my impact on EDI in the workplace is gratifying and humbling. It validates why I still choose to serve on corporate boards in my retirement. I have tried to be intentional; using my voice to promote greater diversity in executive leadership and advocating for the benefits of diversity of thought in teams and decision-making.
I am also quick to share my past experiences with unconscious biases and evaluation systems that hold women back in business. I am thrilled to learn that my efforts and influence can make a difference for others.
You laid the groundwork for the advancement of women through PwC Canada's Women in Leadership initiative. Why has it been so important for you to be a champion for women in the workplace?
Looking back on my professional journey, I am acutely aware of the critical importance male mentors, sponsors, advocates and peers were to my career advancement. I am extremely fortunate to have received opportunities to learn, grow, make mistakes and take risks from almost exclusively male leaders.
PwC provided the foundation for my 34-year professional career as an auditor, a CPA, a partner and ultimately, a global leader. I am eternally grateful for the mentors who saw my potential and pushed me to put my hand up when I was too paralyzed to ask or accept an opportunity for myself.
The truth is everyone needs champions like I had in their corner. These selfless individuals can show you the ropes, teach you how to navigate the political landscape, offer you stretch assignments and put their reputations on the line to ensure you are identified, recognized, fairly rewarded and promoted. Importantly, they can also be brutally honest with you.
So, why do I choose to be a champion for women? It comes down to this: I am deeply committed to paying it forward for those that come after me because of the people who were my champions, who made a step change difference in my career trajectory. I want to help others reach their full potential, understand what is holding them back, find work-life balance on their terms and set their sights higher.
In 1994, you achieved a significant milestone as the first woman promoted to partner in the PwC Mississauga office at PwC Canada and, later, the first woman elected to the global board of PwC. Can you tell us about that experience?
This is embarrassing to share, but for much of my career, I had no plan. I lacked direction and my imposter syndrome gave me crippling feelings of inadequacy. Never were these behaviours more apparent than in the year I was being considered for promotion to partner at PwC.
At the time, my partner coach and sponsor for the biggest milestone of my career to date questioned why I had not drafted a goal about wanting to be a partner in my personal plan. I was embarrassed to write such a lofty, audacious goal. How could I dare to dream that big? Thankfully, my coach convinced me to believe that I was worthy and pressed me to make my intention known. Six months later, I celebrated my promotion as the first woman partner in the office, and the only woman partner promoted across Canada that year.
How did that impact you personally and professionally?
Sadly, I am not the first nor the only woman to feel uncomfortable setting lofty goals. This feeling is bigger than me and reflects societal gender norms and the limitations placed on women’s ambitions.
Taking action – raising your hand, being willing to take risks, stumble or fail and being able to pick yourself up and believe you are worthy – is what leads us to our final destination. Waiting for someone to notice you and your contributions or letting others control your future while being stuck in your head holds you back from your full potential.
Beyond your professional journey, you're also a mother. Can you discuss how you found your work-life balance?
My role as a mother has always come first. I am bursting with pride whenever I speak about my two children, and I am thrilled to help tend to my four grandchildren now that I am retired. I remember how hard juggling work and parenting was. There was no manual on how to raise children as a working mom in a two-career household, However, I tried my best to be a positive role model. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the incredible impact my husband’s strong encouragement and unending support had on my career path.
I wish there was an easy solution to managing work-life flexibility. Striking a realistic balance between a rewarding career and a fulfilling family life remains, and may always be, one of life’s unsolved mysteries. After a stressful day working outside of the home, the ‘second shift’ that many moms perform is nothing short of exhausting.
Is there actually a way to deal with the seemingly relentless “mom guilt” of never feeling like you’re giving enough to work or your kids?
I struggled with mom guilt for most of my children’s young lives. Things intensified when my second child was born with a congenital heart defect. However, this unexpected trauma helped me gain a healthier, new perspective on my work-life balance and taught me what matters most. I never wanted to look back on the decisions I made and feel regret.
It became a priority to be present not just for special events but also for life’s everyday opportunities, like tucking my kids into bed each night. It took perseverance and courage to keep my promise. These are the times you don’t get a chance to redo; if you miss them, they’re gone.
You studied geography and drama at UTM. How did you arrive at a career as an Audit Partner, and why is it important to step outside of your field of expertise?
Life and careers are never a straight line, and I definitely took the road less travelled. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I had thought I wanted to be a teacher.
My favourite high school teacher, and first mentor, taught me geography. As such, I went into university to study geography, and I added a drama minor for fun. After three years of school, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in hand, I had no prospect of, or real desire for a teaching job. I had ignored my innate strengths and passion for math as a possible field to pursue.
After graduating, I needed a job to pay for my student debt and needed time to think about my uncertain future. I applied for a job posting at UTM and was hired as the University Cashier. This became my wake-up call. I learned about debits and credits, and, more importantly about the opportunities that could be available to me with a CPA designation. I discovered what was possible when I combined my passion for math with accounting – and suddenly, a career in business was calling my name.
I certainly don’t consider my education a mistake – I hold a degree from U of T! For the next three years, I was laser-focused on earning my CPA. University had taught me how to study and how to prioritize my time. Through this circuitous path, I had found my passion, my career and happiness.
My advice? When you are faced with a fork in the road, be kind to yourself, cut yourself some slack, and don’t be afraid to push reset.
In 2022, you published Count Me In: A Trailblazer’s Triumph in a World not Built for Her, a personal reflection about being a woman leader in a male-dominated field. What made you decide to share your story?
Thank you for asking. There was heaviness in this task but paying it forward is important to me. I wrote my memoir to share the truths of my personal journey, my lessons learned, my wrong turns, and misconceptions held to help other young women make their journeys that much easier to navigate. But sharing my truths with my mistakes was akin to ripping off the band-aids of my past.
Throughout the pages of Count Me In, I share the significant events and actions I took that shaped my life as a successful woman in business. I also explain how, as a wife and mother of two children, I was forced to make impossible decisions between work and life and how I balanced, or sometimes failed to balance the two. I also slammed into a wall or two along the way. My successes and failures show that even when you are mired in a maze of missteps and self-doubts, you can achieve greatness and leave a lasting impact. I trust that by sharing my personal truths, my failings, triumphs and experiences without reservation, my lessons learned resonate.
All proceeds from my book will support two causes close to my heart: a scholarship for an upper-year female student in STEM at UTM and pediatric cardiology needs in Toronto.
What advice would you offer young alumni about to embark on their own career journeys?
Accept the fact that life and careers are never a straight line. When you reach a fork in the road, take a risk and be open to opportunities that present themselves to you. They may just lead you to the path you were meant to take all along.
Understand gender bias and be aware of those societal gender norms that were programmed into you from childhood, and don’t let them hold you back. Fight against them and rise above.
If you wake up in the morning, and don’t like what you see or how you are feeling, forgive yourself. Find the strength to move on and make the necessary changes to create a better tomorrow for yourself.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.