More than 600 of Winnipeg’s business leaders packed the Convention Centre Thursday morning for the first SHE Day, a leadership and networking event specifically for women.

Everyone from senior executives at IBM, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to local ad agencies and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman were on hand to talk leadership and business.

Marina James, one of the events founders, said until now, Winnipeg was seriously lacking an affordable leadership and networking event.

“Usually there’s an event that comes through town … it’s about $900 and it only gets about 50 women out,” said James, the president of Economic Development Winnipeg. “We just thought that wasn’t inclusive of the majority of the demographic in Winnipeg.”

Marina James – President of Economic Development Winnipeg, co-chair/founder SHE Day

Marina James, the CEO of Economic Development Winnipeg, co-founded the first SHE Day in Winnipeg. James said before the event, women didn't have an affordable option for a networking and leadership event like this. (CBC)

So they created an event with a $40 ticket and a day of keynote speakers who touched on everything from breaking down at work to strategies to land you a senior executive position.

The former was in a talk from David Baker, the lone male speaker at the event.

“It’s a lot of extra pressure,” said Baker, the CEO of Think Shift, a Winnipeg-based consulting and ad agency. “It’s a great opportunity. It’s an important message. We all have to get this understanding that we’re all leaders and we all have a story and we can’t let anyone else define that for us.”

An important message especially for women, according to James, who said the gender gap in senior leadership positions in Winnipeg points directly to a need for this type of conference.

The disparity is clear across Canada – women are dramatically under-represented in the executive ranks of Canada’s largest companies, and there’s a deep divide in Parliament where there are just 25 female legislators for every 75 males.

And throughout James’s career, every single one of her mentors were men.

SHE Day in Winnipeg

The first SHE Day in Winnipeg attracted more than 600 women to the Convention Centre Thursday morning. (CBC)

“That’s because when you go back a few years men were largely in senior leadership roles. It’s evolved. This balance of women in senior leadership roles is in the last 10 years. You go back 20 years, we’re all in administrative pools,” she said. “This is big changes.”

Lindy Norris bought a ticket as soon as the event was announced.

She’s been in marketing for the past 12 years and says chances to network with other business women in Winnipeg are rare.

“Today I’ve seen a lot of different people from high-level executives from developing career women … They’ve served a big demand,” said Norris. “I’m sure out of today new relationships will form where perhaps younger women in their careers can find new mentors or leading women in Winnipeg will find young women that maybe they see something in or maybe see themselves in and are willing to provide that expertise.”

Speakers zero in on confidence

Barbara Bowes is hoping the event will give a lot of young businesswomen in Winnipeg a jolt of confidence.

Bowes runs Legacy Bowes Group, a leading HR firm in Winnipeg, and said she’s faced her fair share of sexism in and obstacles in the industry.

'Where women really lag behind, is when they’re moving into a first-line supervisor or first-time manager position' - Barbara Bowes, Legacy Bowes Group

“All you have to do is take a look at the executives of many of the companies here in the Winnipeg, take a look at government and any large organization – there are very few women at the top of the organization,” she said.

The conference tapped Bowes to talk about her leadership strategies and how she worked her way up.

“Many of my strategies weren’t strategies at all. Many of them were accidental until I learned that, ‘Oh, I have to market myself',” said Bowes.

She said while attitudes in board rooms are changing, the city is a long way from equity, and Bowes said she sees a marked difference in the clients who come to her looking to be matched with jobs.

At the senior executive level, Bowes said men and women tend to be around the same level of confidence, but getting to that level is another story.

 “Where women really lag behind, is when they’re moving into a first-line supervisor or first-time manager position,” she said. “They don’t give themselves credit for what they do … Guys will go for it.”

James echoed that sentiment, saying much of the day was about “engaging with our own self-confidence and how we feel at that corporate table, which is still largely, in board rooms, largely a male audience.”

The conference runs until Thursday afternoon.