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Mother and daughter walking in neighbourhood. (Jupiterimages/Getty Images)
Mother and daughter walking in neighbourhood. (Jupiterimages/Getty Images)

MARGARET WENTE

What glass ceiling? It's the mommy track Add to ...

The glass ceiling is as thick as ever. That was the recent conclusion of a depressing new report from the Conference Board of Canada. It found that female senior managers in Canada are still as scarce as heatstroke in January. “Even the most patient person must despair at the pace of change,” said Anne Golden, the Conference Board’s highly respected CEO.

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How bad is it? The numbers speak for themselves. Of the eight million women in the work force, only 0.32 per cent are senior managers. The needle has scarcely budged in 20 years. The report blames this sorry lack of progress on a wide range of factors, including gendered choices in education, stereotyped ideas about leadership, women’s lack of mentoring and preparation, their discomfort with self-promotion, inhospitable organizational cultures, and harassment. “The path to the top is still blocked for most women,” opined the Toronto Star.

Oddly enough, the report ( Women in Senior Management: Where Are They?) makes no mention of two other factors that might conceivably be relevant: “motherhood” and “children.” And that’s too bad, because motherhood and children explain much more about this subject than every other factor combined. All the barriers cited by the Conference Board report undoubtedly exist. But the overwhelming explanation for the relatively small number of women in senior management is that women – especially those with children – choose not to be there.

As for the numbers, they aren’t as lopsided as they appear. Hardly any men are senior managers, either – only 0.62 per cent. In other words, men at the top outnumber women at the top by around 2 to 1. To tell the truth, I’m surprised it’s not more than that.

Across the developed world, large numbers of highly educated professional women display an overwhelming preference for the mommy track. Once they have children, many of them choose part-time work or shortened hours, as well as more time off. This is true even in countries such as Sweden and Iceland, where public daycare is universal and parental leaves are generous. In North America, where women have been flocking to business school for a generation, the careers of female MBAs slow down substantially a few years after they have kids. The same is true for female lawyers and doctors. In the U.K., half of female family doctors work part-time.

Canadian Pacific Railway is one company that has aggressively mentored and promoted women. One of its stars is Tracy Robinson, 47, who’s vice-president of marketing and sales for coal and merchandise. Like most executives, she works as many as 60 hours a week and is on the road a third of the time. She has four kids. How many women would aspire to walk in her high heels? Not that many, I’d guess.

Most Dutch women would feel extremely sorry for Ms. Robinson. Although gender equality is a given in the Netherlands, their priorities do not include the C-suite. Three-quarters of Dutch working women are employed part-time – by choice. (Only 20 per cent of Canadian working women are employed part-time.) They have lots of time for shopping at the market on their bikes, having coffee with their friends, and hanging with their kids. They don’t appear to feel the least deprived by their lack of business recognition or 60-hour work weeks. As Maclean’s magazine reports, they rank low in management positions but near the top in happiness and well-being. In other words, they’ve achieved that other holy grail of modern womanhood – work-life balance.

Of course, women don’t always know what’s good for them. And some people (invariably other women) are highly critical of women who waste their lives on the mommy track. “I think highly educated women have a moral obligation to take top positions, to set an example by their choices,” says Dutch economist Heleen Mees, who argues that happiness is overrated. “When women just stay at home or work part-time, they don’t reach the top, and they set bad examples for their daughters and daughters’ daughters.”

The Conference Board’s Anne Golden warns that, unless corporate cultures change, it will take another 151 years before the proportion of men and women at the management level is equal. I disagree. I think that, unless women change, the proportion will never be equal. And women show no sign of doing that.

 

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