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Shattering the glass ceiling

Economist Carolyn Wilkins makes history as the highest-ranking woman at the Bank of Canada

Story by Justin Fauteux

When most people think of economics, they think of numbers — mathematical models, interest rates and financial markets.

But to Carolyn Wilkins (BA ’87), economics isn’t really about numbers at all. “I’m interested in people,” she says. “And while there’s a lot of math involved and a lot of numbers we look at, at the end of the day what we’re trying to do is understand how people behave and how they’re going to be affected by what’s happening in their community and around the globe.”

In April, Wilkins was appointed the senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada, becoming the first woman to hold the high-profile position. In her role, Wilkins is the second-highest ranking official at the bank, serving as the right-hand to Governor Stephen Poloz.

“It’s a big honour,” says Wilkins, who has worked at the Bank for 13 years, holding a variety of senior positions. “The Bank has had female deputy governors for the last 20 years, so in my mind, it’s a natural progression.”

Even if they don’t realize it, the average Canadian interacts with the Bank of Canada on a daily basis. As the country’s central bank, it is responsible for issuing Canadian bank notes, but it also impacts Canadians on a much larger scale.

By working with government to set economic and monetary policy, the Bank of Canada is responsible for the stability of Canada’s economy. And that’s where Wilkins comes in. Her job description is lofty: she oversees the Bank’s strategic planning and operations, and shares responsibility for monetary policy.

“That’s one of the greatest things I think about being a professional economist — you never stop learning.”

“The everyday Canadian expects to be able to go the bank and get their money, and they expect to be able to pay for things and the value of their money is preserved,” says Wilkins. “And when everything goes well, they probably don’t notice too much what the Bank of Canada is doing.”

Every day is different

As the No. 2 policymaker at the Bank, every day is different for Wilkins. She travels at least once a month, either to the Bank’s regional offices throughout Canada or around the world, representing Canada on multiple international committees. And when she is in her office in Ottawa, her days usually begin with a briefing on activity in the financial markets around the world, followed by meetings with government officials and policy researchers.

While some eyes may glaze over at the word “policy,” Wilkins sees public policy as “the foundation of a country’s well-being.” To illustrate her point, she cites the 2008 financial crisis, when Canada’s sound banking and regulatory system, combined with emergency liquidity funds made available by the Bank of Canada and government actions, resulted in the nation experiencing less financial turbulence than other countries.

The setting of monetary policy doesn’t happen overnight. Most policies require exhaustive research, countless hours of discussion with government and private-sector stakeholders, and mathematical modelling.

“These kinds of policies, while they may seem abstract and technical, at the end of the day affect real people,” says Wilkins. “The mortgage rate they pay, whether or not the chocolate bar you’re going to buy is more expensive now than it was last year, whether or not you have confidence in some of the financial institutions you use, like banks. The policies we design are going to have an effect on people’s everyday lives in one way or another.”

Lessons from Laurier

It was that interest in people that drew Wilkins to economics — and Laurier — in the first place. She recalls being mentored by professors such as Pierre Siklos, Baldev Raj and Terrance Levesque, and developing a true understanding for both the financial and social impacts of economics.

The community atmosphere at Laurier played a big role in her decision to attend the university.

Raised in the small town of Selwyn, Ont., just north of Peterborough, Wilkins grew up in a neighbourhood where everyone knew everyone and friends were never far. The community atmosphere at Laurier played a big role in her decision to attend the university.

She also recalls how that “small school” atmosphere helped her academically.

“I remember the class sizes were so small and the amount of time we had with professors was really great,” she says. “I don’t know how much I realized it at the time, but we were very lucky to have that kind of time with our professors.”

Wilkins recalls making great friends, working at Wilf’s pub and spending a lot of time at the library, since, she says with a laugh, “In those days that was still the relevant place to go for information.” She also worked for Siklos, who is still a professor in the School of Business and Economics, manually entering census data from microfiche into a computer, “A lesson in patience and precision,” she says.

Wilkins spent two co-op terms at the Ontario Ministry of Treasury and Economics, and another working in marketing at IBM, which both came with the added thrill of living in Toronto. “I guess it would have been fun for anybody, but it was especially fun for me coming from a small town,” says Wilkins.

After graduating from Laurier, Wilkins completed her MA in economics at Western University and shortly after got a job working in the Federal Department of Finance. She later moved to Canada’s Privy Council Office at the end of former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s administration, and stayed on to work under two more prime ministers: Kim Campbell and Jean Chrétien.

Wilkins says the early 1990s was an interesting time to break into the economic-policy field as Canada hit its debt wall and there was crisis after crisis in emerging markets. But it was a great opportunity to cut her teeth and constantly learn, something she’s still doing today.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a job I’ve had where I haven’t had to open up a book or go on the web and learn something new,” she says. “That’s one of the greatest things I think about being a professional economist — you never stop learning.”

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