The Corporate Archives curates physical and digital exhibits from our collections to tell BMO’s story over the years. Our aim is to provide a better understanding of the defining moments in our history.

Celebrating women at BMO

In honour of International Women’s Day, we celebrate the evolution of women in BMO’s workforce. Prior to the 20th century, North American banking was male dominated. As of October 2023, women make up 41 per cent of our senior leadership roles, and we continue to grow that number as we work to make progress towards a more inclusive society. This exhibit shares some moments from our history that reflect the growth and accomplishments of women at BMO.

Entering the bank

At the turn of the 20th century, the workforce was predominantly male oriented. Women employees gradually joined the bank in the early-20th century, most commonly as stenographers.

Equipped with their typewriters, stenographers were responsible for ensuring the clarity of bank documents by transcribing handwritten statements and taking dictation from managers. The importance of their role is reflected in their growth. Whereas only one stenographer worked at Head Office in 1905, their number increased to ten only a short time later.

Images: (1) Blickensderfer typewriter, Model 7, c. 1897; (2) Photograph of the staff of the Estevan branch, including stenographer Ethel Viola Medcof, c. 1910.

Banking on the homefront: The First World War

With male employees enlisting to fight in the First World War, women increasingly joined the bank to fill their positions. A bank circular dated January 24, 1917, reveals the positions for which women were now considered eligible: “It has been proven that women are quite capable of assuming the duties of ledgerkeeper, collection clerk and cash items clerk, and have in certain instances become efficient tellers…”

This wartime increase is documented in the bank’s annual reports. The Annual Report for 1917, for instance, notes that women comprised 42 per cent of bank staff.

Images: (1) Bank of Montreal circular on the wartime employment of women, Circular no. 2856, 17 January 1917; (2) Photograph of branch staff in Paris, Ontario during the First World War, including two women, c. 1915.

Head Office Filing Department: An all-women team

As women continued to join the bank in the early-20th century, some departments, such as the Head Office Filing Department, became staffed entirely by women. The department, known as “the bank’s central reservoir of information,” was responsible for storing and indexing memos and correspondence from nearly all the bank’s departments.

Helen B. Pike, head of the Filing Department, describes a regular day for her team of 12 women in a Staff Magazine article:

“If the Filing Department itself is a trifle overwhelming at first sight, just imagine the cumulative effect of the numbers of letters that it represents. They come and go every day literally by the thousand, and most of the correspondence is kept for at least twenty years. That means many millions of documents, each in its proper place in a sequence of correspondence […] None of the monotony which rows upon rows of filing cabinets suggest is to be found here. Instead the whole atmosphere is one of life and motion. […] It is a department that seldom comes to the notice of any but the Head Office Staff, yet its work reaches out daily to the furthest confines of our service.”

Image: Photograph of the women of the Filing Department, Staff Magazine, June 1933.

She shoots, she scores!

The women employees of the early-to-mid 20th century contributed to a lively work-life culture. They formed an array of sports teams and clubs, ranging from hockey and curling to bowling and golf.

Image: Photograph of Bank of Montreal Ladies’ Hockey Team, 1920-1921.

M&I Girls Club

Founded in the 1920s, the Girls’ Club was an association that organized picnics, costume parties, and other events for the women employees of Marshall & Ilsley (M&I, amalgamated with BMO in 2011). Their gatherings were chronicled in the club’s newsletter, Play Time.

During the holidays, the Girls’ Club also hosted annual parties in the lobby of the bank’s main office, where they provided gifts to families in need.

Image: Photograph of a M&I Girls’ Club celebration, c. 1920s.

Banking on the homefront: The Second World War

Much like during the First World War, women became indispensable for ensuring the continuity of bank operations when male employees left to fight in the Second World War. By 1942, the bank employed 3,201 women, a significant increase when compared to the 1,500 women employees reported in the Annual Report for 1938.

In a letter to a colleague fighting on the front, an employee recounts how the number of women grew in the wake of the war and how deftly they assumed their responsibilities. The letter, which would later be published in the bank’s Staff Magazine, reads:

“Well, Cuthbert, you’d never know the old place. If I remember correctly, there were when you left ten men and three girls. Now there are three men and ten girls […]And I want to tell you, Cuthbert, [they are] making good […] You remember, Cuthbert, the trouble you used to have balancing M to Z ledger. Well, Mabel usually balances it at sight and Mabel has only been in the bank six months….”

Image: Photograph of women employees assisting customers at the counter during the Second World War, Verdun, 4th Avenue & Wellington Street branch, September 1945.

Rebecca Watson

In 1963, with the opening of the campus branch at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Rebecca Watson became the bank’s first woman branch manager. Watson began her career at the bank’s Fredericton main branch in 1941. She steadily climbed the ranks, becoming chief clerk in 1952 and head of the liability department in 1958.

At the campus branch, Watson, who was a UNB alumna, served a robust community of students and faculty members. By 1971, the branch grew from a staff of four to a staff of 26 under her direction. Watson continued to serve as manager of the branch, which became affectionately known as “Becky’s bank” because of her friendly service and astute financial advice, until her retirement in 1982.

Image: Photograph of Rebecca Watson, c. 1970s.

Sherron Eggleston

Sherron Eggleston became the first African American clerical worker hired by Harris Bank (amalgamated with BMO in 1984) when she began as a trainee in 1963. Eggleston first held a series of jobs designed to train young clerks before showing particular aptitude for telephone operations. As one of the youngest operators on the switchboard, she became manager and responsible for the bank’s nearly $100,000 annual telephone expense.

After a decade in the Telephone Unit and Personnel Division, Eggleston was elected Personnel Officer in 1976 and assistant vice president in 1983. By 1988, she became Vice President of Employee Relations.

Image: Photograph of Sherron Eggleston, 1964.

Pauline Vanier

Pauline Vanier was the first woman to sit on the board of directors of a Canadian chartered bank, having been elected a Director of Bank of Montreal at its annual general meeting in 1967. It was one of many firsts for Madame Vanier, who served as vice regal consort from 1959 to 1967 when her husband, Georges, was Governor General. When Georges died in office in 1967, Prime Minister Lester Pearson appointed Pauline Vanier to the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada – the first woman outside of party politics to receive this distinction. She was also one of the first Canadians invested as a Companion in the newly created Order of Canada, in recognition of her humanitarian work.

With a commitment to drive progress towards an inclusive society, BMO continues to be a leader in promoting the role of women in banking. In 2022, six of our 12 independent directors are women, and three of the four standing committees of the board are chaired by women.

Image: Photograph of Pauline Vanier, 1967.

Breaking the glass ceiling

In the early 1990s, the bank struck three important internal task forces on the advancement of women and other important groups. The bank wanted to understand and act upon the question of how best to unleash the talents and potential of all its employees.

The Task Force on the Advancement of Women in the Bank was issued in November 1991. Among its findings, the report recorded that three-quarters of the then-28,000 permanent employees were women, yet they constituted only nine per cent of executive positions and 13 per cent of senior management. And yet, as then-President Tony Comper explained in the preface to the report, this performance was still among the best in the banking industry, thus underlining the seriousness of the issue. The landmark report was an unusually candid examination of the perceptions and the realities of contemporary women bankers struggling to move forward in financial institutions.

Acting on the report’s recommendations, the bank embarked on the long process toward achieving gender balance in the bank. The success of the bank’s efforts was recognized three years later by Catalyst, which presented its 1994 Catalyst Award to BMO for promoting the advancement of women – the first Canadian company, and the first bank in North America, to receive the prestigious award. In 2017, Catalyst presented its annual award for a second time to BMO, one of only a handful of companies to be recognized twice.

Image: Cover of First Bank News, referencing the Task Force on the Advancement of Women, January 1991.

Women at BMO today

Today, employees continue to uplift women for the betterment of BMO’s business, communities and culture.

In 2023, BMO announced it has been included in the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index (GEI) for the eighth year in a row. The global index recognizes companies committed to gender equality and inclusivity within the workplace and the community, and publicly demonstrates each company’s commitment to equality and advancing women.

As part of BMO’s Zero Barriers to Inclusion 2025 strategy, BMO reached its North American enterprise goal of 40 per cent sustainable gender equity and will continue forward with bold targets for robust representation of women in senior leadership roles across the bank.