Gender parity in the executive suites and boardrooms of Canadian companies is in sight — if you have a telescope.
If advances continue at their current pace, women’s bums in the seats of corporate power should equal men’s at about the same time as the next full lunar eclipse on the winter solstice — some time around the end of the century.
Some would say we live in a post-feminist society: women make up approximately 48 per cent of the workforce, are entering professions traditionally dominated by men, and are graduating from business schools in greater numbers than men.
Yet a generation after equality was enshrined in the Canadian Constitution, women are still earning less than their male counterparts. Only 19 companies on the Financial Post 500 have female CEOs, and the percentage of women directors on publicly traded companies is just 14, according to Catalyst Canada’s 2010 survey — 10 per cent when Crown corporations are removed from the mix.
“If you think that the advances have been made then you’re being complacent,” says Ruth Wright, the Conference Board of Canada’s associate director of leadership and human resources research. Wright’s study of senior management shows the career trajectory of women over the last 20 years has been flat.
“There’s something going on and we probably need to be a lot more proactive around what’s happening to women in early career stages, that they’re not ascending the ladder at the same rate as men.”
Liberal Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette is among those who think 90 years is a smidgen too long to wait — she’s introduced a private member’s bill that calls for gender parity on boards of publicly traded companies over a period of three years.
Hervieux-Payette isn’t a trailblazer in this area: Norway has had a 40 per cent quota for the past four years; Spain has imposed quotas and other European countries, including France and Belgium, are looking into them. Quebec has a quota system in place for its Crown corporations.
“I’m not happy that we have to legislate,” says Hervieux-Payette, who bristles at the word “quota,” saying her bill would legislate the equality that the Constitution promises. “Normally the government is there to correct the imbalances of society. We are there to make sure there is fairness but also, in this case, that we serve well the interests of our citizens. … We are in fact intervening in a place where the system doesn’t work.”
The 2010 report card by the Canadian Board Diversity Council — a group established in 2009 to promote greater diversity on boards of directors — would back up her view. According to that study, 15 per cent of board members on Financial Post 500 companies identify themselves as female; 5.3 per cent of members say they are visible minorities; 2.9 per cent say they have disabilities; and 0.8 per cent identify themselves as aboriginals. Yet 62 per cent of FP 500 board members consider their boards to be diverse.
The report says 61 per cent of female members and 35 per cent of male board members say in their opinion diversity is very important, but only 28 per cent of respondents identify it as “very important” in the eyes of their board.
John Manley, the former Liberal deputy prime minister who is now president and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, says when governance committees gather to select directors, “absolutely there’s a premium on getting women. On the other hand, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got people that the investors are going to say, ‘yeah, that meets certain requirements for the skills that we want to see on boards of directors.’
“Every board looks (to fill) a skills matrix, and I’d say in the last few years the highest premium on skills for all boards has been either active or recently retired CEOs.”
Manley says change will come in time.
Deborah Gillis, president of Catalyst Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing women, says that’s not enough.
“For those who might think that hope is a strategy and argue that time will take care of the gender leadership gap in Canada, I point out that since Catalyst Canada Inc. began tracking women’s representation on boards almost 10 years ago, (it) has increased by 4.2 percentage points — an average half a percentage point annually,” Gillis told the senate committee on banking, trade and commerce hearing on Hervieux-Payette’s bill in December, according to the unrevised transcript.
“There is only one conclusion to be drawn from this data: unless something changes fundamentally to accelerate the pace of change, gender parity on Canadian boards will remain a pipe dream for women and men who are committed to good corporate governance, financial performance and gender equity.”
Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, wrote about women’s lack of advancement in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. They suggest that part of the problem could be misidentification of the obstacles women face.
“Glass ceiling-inspired programs and projects can do just so much if the leakage of talented women is happening on every lower floor of the building,” say Eagly and Carli, who describe the challenge facing women as a labyrinth that can turn them around at any stage of their careers.
Eagly and Carli outline a number of barriers in the maze that keep women away from the executive suite: prejudice; resistance to women’s leadership; leadership style issues; and family demands that make it difficult for women to engage in the kind of social networking that is essential to advancement.
Wright also points out that women are taking corporate roles and not taking the operational kind of jobs, particularly in the resource sector, that lead to managerial and executive positions.
Still, as the senators at the committee hearing and Manley pointed out, there is pushback to the idea of a quota system — including from women themselves, who want to be promoted on merit.
Manley says there is value in mandating parity “if your only value is parity.” He says what shareholders want is a board that will provide them with good returns.
“Is saying that you have an absolute requirement the best way to get the best possible people on boards?”
Liv Monica Stubholt, CEO and board member of Norway’s Aker Clean Carbon, who also presented at the December committee hearing, noted that in the absence of attempts to include women and other minorities in the nomination process, the result has been a de facto affirmative action program for men. Stubholt told the committee that the result of quotas in her country has been a more open and transparent nominating process, and no company’s bottom line has suffered from having greater numbers of women on their boards.
Hervieux-Payette notes studies have suggested that having women in management and on boards changes the culture of those groups and can increase the company’s success. She says the recent recession, as well as Canada’s chronic low productivity numbers, is evidence that the current “good old boys networks” aren’t working in the interests of the company or the country, and that it’s time to make a change.
“We are entering into a fight for survival with competition around the world and we need the best. That’s it. We need to change our system.”