International Women's Day 2022

An interview with West Park Healthcare Centre's President and CEO Anne-Marie Malek

Anne-marie malek International women's day

From the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Collaborative

Naomi Max; Recreation Therapy Assistant

International Women’s Day is a unique opportunity to celebrate women around the world. This year, the EDIC wanted to recognize our President and CEO, Anne-Marie Malek and the advancements she has brought to West Park and the greater healthcare community. Our hospital is extremely lucky to be guided by so many wonderful women who have achieved so much, and it is our joy to celebrate everything our female leaders have accomplished. The following interview was conducted with Anne-Marie Malek, and we are grateful that she was delighted to spend the time answering these questions given her busy schedule.

Tell me a little bit about your career, education, and the steps you took to lead you into your current role.

I am a nurse by background and after completing my undergraduate degree at Dalhousie in Nursing, I started my career as a staff nurse at Sunnybrook for two years and had an incredible experience in this role as I had a position in four different clinical areas within one very large inpatient unit. It gave me a great understanding of diversity in my clinical practice both in combined surgical and medical unit. After being a staff nurse for a couple of years and having opportunities to be a charge nurse and acting manager, I decided to do a Master’s degree in Health Administration because I could see that my interests were in advancing my practice in a leadership aspect. And so off I went to do my Master’s degree in Health Administration in Alberta, as I have always loved travelling and living in different places as the opportunity presents itself.

 I then ended up being recruited back to Sunnybrook as a Nurse Manager, and from there I was then recruited to Toronto East General as a Director of Nursing. As I was there, I became the Acting Vice-President of Patient Services because of a vacancy in that position. After that I ended up coming across this opportunity at West Park, as the Vice-President of Programs on a two-year contract and here I am all these years later! In 2005, my predecessor resigned from his position and I decided to pursue the CEO role, and very thankfully I have enjoyed my role at West Park for many years. In my experience at West Park, I have had the opportunity to have leadership oversight over virtually every aspect of the organization, and it has been an absolutely fabulous experience.

How has your experience as a working mom affected your career? Do you have any advice for young women navigating these dual roles?

I think it is actually quite challenging. Having said that, I think that times have changed a lot since my experience. My children are now “launched” in their own lives and so I am in a different space now than I was, but this is a really important point. It is a very demanding time for working mothers and women who are wanting to start a family and advance their career at the same time. In my own experience I was very fortunate to have a very supportive husband and extended family to assist when needed with childcare. I am aware that not everyone has this luxury, but it was so helpful to us. I had my first child while I was a Director of Nursing at Toronto East General, it happened to be a very busy time in health care with a lot of change on the way and restructuring  –  and it was not a great time to take a maternity leave. And at the time it was only six months.

What I remember most about that time was coming back into a senior role and leaving my child at home, feeling not ready to be leaving her. I think everyone’s experience, regardless of how much time you have off, is that things do settle in and you do find a way to manage it and carry on. But it is a constant struggle of finding a balance of time, to ensure you are giving what you need to your workplace to advance your career – if that is what you want to do – but also making sure you are spending the time that you need with your family. When I look back I don’t think I had the right balance, because I probably spent more time focusing on my work and maybe a little less time than I would have liked with my family and children, because I felt I was always spending time on weekends working. Looking back, that is precious time that you never get back, so I always encourage young mothers to take that time.

I was fortunate that when I had my second child, I made a career change which allowed me to take an additional four months off, so I learned my lesson! I was actually at home for a year and a half. It is all about learning in life, with my first child I probably went back too soon, so with my second I made sure I spent enough time with both of them while they were young.  

As a female CEO, have you faced any hurdles in your job that are unique to female leaders? 

My experience has been very positive and one that I have always felt supported at West Park, particularly by the Board of Directors. That said, what I will say is that it is good that times are changing and that times have changed. When I came into the CEO role, which was 17 years ago, there were not that many women in CEO roles and I think that we were certainly still at a point where women (other than executive clinical roles) were less common in the senior executive roles and at CEO roles. I can’t say that I am aware that I faced any challenges, but I was very conscious of the fact that many of my peers and colleagues were men, and I think inherent in that is the sense of really needing to prove yourself and your abilities. The other thing I would add to that is that there is good research evidence to show that leadership styles vary between women to men, so being in a role that was predominantly preoccupied by men (which by the way is no longer still the case, I actually think the roles have reversed), there was a heightened awareness in the approach a female CEO would take.

I think it is all about how you come to the workplace and what your expectations of yourself and your workplace are. I think it is so important to approach whatever the role is with confidence in our abilities and in what we have to contribute. That is always what has been my guidepost in any position that I have held. I consider my career to be one of a progressive position, one building on another: staff nurse, charge nurse, manager, director, VP, CEO. I wasn’t a person that jumped any steps, I built my career and advanced it in a step-by-step way, because it built my sense of confidence in my abilities since I have lived in and performed in these roles and understood them as my career advanced. I think back to every position that I have held and the things that we could have done better, it helps me empathize with the challenges people have within the organization, regardless of the position they hold.

What accomplishment are you most proud of as a CEO?

I have to say that my proudest accomplishment in my role at CEO at West Park has been the creation of the vision of the campus of care and seeing the vision of the brand new hospital rising from the ground and being so close to completion. It has been a very long process that began in 2005 in my first year as CEO and it has taken all these years to plan for the development and acquire all the approvals that we need and begin the construction. Seeing this come together is our proudest accomplishment as an organization. It really is something that has really engaged the entire organization as there are front-line staff, management, medical staff, patients, and volunteers who at many times contributed tremendously to the planning and design. The thought of walking through those front doors is so exciting, and such a proud accomplishment for our organization to achieve.

How do you feel about the progress for women in health care and in the workforce made so far?

I feel that women have made a lot of progress, and I am sure there is lots more progress that needs to be made. We have come a long way in supporting women in the workforce, both in terms of advancement opportunities, growth opportunities, development, and understanding of demands that working mothers face. I think generally we are more aware of and able to support the growth and learning needs of our staff than we were years ago – and more attuned to the demands of the support we can provide working mothers. It is particularly important now that we have so many human resources challenges and that we are in a period of time where there are critical shortages across the healthcare system.

If there is a silver lining it is that it accelerates our thinking as an organization and society in general around how we need to accommodate the needs of our staff in order for them to be able to do the work that we need them to do, but also to balance that with their own life circumstances and their needs of raising children and the needs of their personal lives.

What would you say to women entering the workforce and wanting to one day lead an organization like yourself?

Go for it! Seize every single learning opportunity that presents itself. Ensure that you grow in your career and make it known that you are interested in advancing in your career. Explore other opportunities to know what your interests are, where your strengths lie, and establish relationships and networks with colleagues, mentors, and your managers so that you make it clear that you are interested in other opportunities for growth and development. It is something that I have done throughout my career and it has served me well.

I think that opportunities for growth and learning can be realized in many, many different ways, and creating opportunities demonstrate your interest in leadership. Finally, bringing positive energy is key to successful relationships in the workplace! These are all different things that we can do to advance our careers and achieve our goals.