Brenda Kenny never consciously thought about becoming a role model.
However, after almost a decade with the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA), the president and CEO of that organization is now a new grandmother and a recipient of a Women's Executive Network (WXN) 2012 Canada's Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Award, joining a handful of Canadian women working in the natural resources industries on that list last year.
"I guess I'm at that point in my life and my career," said Kenny, suddenly realizing that she is now in a position to be a role model.
"I've always enjoyed meeting young people who want to ask questions about their own careers and choices," she continued. "But it is important that we stand up, we voice our views, we act with integrity and we model the kinds of choices people have in their own lives at any number of stages."
Kenny said that her path to this point in her life and career has been all about asking the difficult questions.
"I'm a curious person," she said. "And that's probably what drew me into science in the first place. But when I started working in research, it was interesting questions that drew me in. When I moved into regulation, I found myself being one of the people that was asking, 'Why do we do it this way? Or isn't there a better way to do it? What are we trying to accomplish?'
"Focusing on results and asking hard questions – it always opens new doors."
Kenny kept asking those hard questions as a doctoral student in sustainable development several years into her career and when she finally moved into her present position with CEPA.
"It's not at all a traditional role of just simply representing company interests," she said, emphasizing the importance of collaboration with other stakeholders in an industry that is one of the largest in the world.
"It's a very well-deserved recognition," said Kim McCaig, the recently retired vice president of operations with CEPA, discussing the WXN award presented to Kenny.
"Brenda's been a fascinating figure in the energy industry for over a decade," he said of the woman who has been his colleague for about eight years. "And she is one of the more influential people that's in that energy discussion right now in Canada."
Kenny and McCaig began their tenures with CEPA at about the same time.
"I came from a pipeline company and Brenda came from the national regulator," said McCaig, recalling those early days working together.
"My first impression of her when I first met her way back eight years ago was this was a person who thoroughly understood the industry she was involved with, had a really good grasp of the issues that was facing the energy industry, and she had her feet firmly planted on the ground around how the … general public was viewing infrastructure renewal and development in Canada and in North America.
"She was the right person at the right time to come into and head up the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association."
McCaig said Kenny has been a good leader largely because her actions always match her words.
"She doesn't put out positions or thoughts or ideas that she hasn't thought about," he explained, adding that she not only possesses a great deal of technical information about the industry, but also understands human relationships.
"When you're trying to help people understand the issues, you've got to understand their perspectives as well, and Brenda is a really great role model for that."
McCaig believes that partly stems from Kenny's experiences teaching at the University of Calgary and her participation in groups such as the Chamber of Commerce.
"Just a wide variety of groups that have helped her understand how people perceived different issues and how it impacts that local community at the provincial and federal levels," said McCaig.
"I believe she's a person that's really trusted and respected," he continued. "And people really like engaging in a dialogue with her because it challenges them how to think differently.
"She genuinely respects the people she's talking with. And she tries hard to understand how they view things so that she can help provide information that stimulates that discussion, stimulates the conservation, so people can arrive at informed conclusions."
McCaig said Kenny also has a genuine interest in finding solutions to problems that are beneficial to both the pipeline industry and the other stakeholders.
"She legitimately wants to find win-win solutions to issues so everybody feels relatively satisfied they've accomplished something, rather than a winner take all approach.
McCaig feels those are necessary characteristics for an individual who has to play such a vital role in the Canadian pipeline industry, particularly when relatively few Canadians have had firsthand experience with pipelines.
"What Brenda helps with in the conversation is that she tries to present information from her own experiences based on what she believes the facts to be, and that helps people become more aware," he said.
Conversations with Kenny are never attempts at persuasion either.
"She's not there to try to convince me of the righteousness of her position or try to convince me to come onboard with her," said McCaig.
"What she's trying to do is help me think about it differently."
WXN's Canada's Most Powerful Women awards were announced on Dec. 4, 2012, recognizing women from business, industry, government and academia across the country.
"What makes a man or woman powerful is the power that they have within a sector or an industry at an organizational level to make a change," said WXN founder Pamela Jeffery.
"It might be to grow a company. It might be to take a company international. It might be to be very innovative. It might be to grow a company by hiring good people and growing and empowering teams of people.
"A woman who's able to be a role model – has the ability to empower a generation of young Canadian women."
Jeffery looks to her childhood and the early stages of her career as a businesswoman in downtown Toronto to explain the importance of recognizing powerful women in Canada.
"There were not many men or women who I knew of who were CEOs or holding C-suite roles," Jeffery said of her youth in London, Ontario.
It wasn't much different in Toronto in the nineties.
"There was really a need that I had personally to have a larger peer community of women," she said.
"There were too few women in leadership roles. And for those of us who were in those roles, we really didn't know each other very well. And so I started WXN as a way to create a community for women in management. And so it grew from there. And we very quickly expanded to Vancouver and then to Calgary and Ottawa and then to Montreal. And we expanded through offering a speaker series. So, we would invite women to come to the WXN podium who were highly successful leaders, who were good role models."
Jeffery realized that those women in senior management roles were still largely unknown throughout Canada, which is why she decided to create the Canada's Most Powerful Women award program in 2003, just six years after WXN was born.
"The idea here is to shine a light on those women who are in those senior roles," she said. "And their power in part comes from their ability to help empower the next generation of women.
"We really encourage these award winners to come and speak about where they're from and how they got to where they are. I think that's really important."
When the award program began, there were only two women in the energy sector on the list. The 2012 awards recognized four women from the energy sector, including Kenny, Trudy Curran of Canadian Oil Sands, Helen Wesley of Talisman Energy and Lorraine Mitchelmore, president and Canada country chair with Shell Canada.
Mitchelmore's duties extend beyond Canada as vice president of onshore exploration throughout the Americas.
"I think it's all about merit," said Jeffery.
"I think that companies are increasingly aware of the importance of identifying people for leadership roles and not necessarily leaving the hiring decisions to folks who may hire in their own image.
"Human nature being what it is, people tend to hire in their own image. But if you can take bias out of performance review and succession planning and you can look objectively at what a position calls for and look at skill sets, then that's where you see the companies moving towards more untraditional leadership choices. And these women are definitely untraditional in [that] industry. But it takes courage.
"And it's good for business for oil and gas companies to be attracting and keeping these top talents, whether they're men or women."
"I think things have really changed a lot," Kenny said of female participation in the energy sector.
"When I first started out many years ago," she continued, "it certainly was more unusual to see women in senior ranks. And that is changing."
However, the success that some Canadian women are enjoying in such technical and scientific fields doesn't mean that young women in Canada are pursuing education and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in greater numbers these days.
"I see there being a shortage of women who are studying in STEM," said Jeffery.
"It's a very deeply technical field," said Kenny. "We still, unfortunately, have a relatively low proportion of women going into, for example, engineering. To some extent, it's not surprising that the numbers of vice presidents of operations who are women are similarly relatively low."
Kenny is encouraged by the number of women in professions such as finance or law and hopes that will extend to science and technology.
"My sincere hope is that women who are interested in science will see a great opportunity in learning how to use that science for society."
Kenny suggested that demonstrating that connection between science and society to young women is one way of encouraging them to go into STEM.
Another way is emphasizing the "fun factor" of the field.
"That it is interesting and exciting," she said.
"I think too often we characterize science and technology as something that's very cold," she continued. "But, in the root of it, when you think about the challenges we face in Canada, many of the breakthrough changes that will improve society are going to have to come from science and technology. So, it's that connection to things that matter to people that I find often resonates with young women."
Kenny believes the Engineers Without Borders program is a perfect example of that phenomenon.
"They focus a lot of their efforts overseas in developing countries, but at their heart is how to solve social problems through engineering," she said of the organization.
Kenny said that about half of the attendance at their major conferences is always women.
"That tells me a lot about where the genuine interest lies, the heart and soul matters of engineering, and that's always been the attraction for me."