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Antonia Maioni

Antonia Maioni

Antonia Maioni

How research can reshape Canada’s workplace culture Add to ...

Antonia Maioni of McGill University is president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Any professor in the social sciences and humanities will tell you that women outnumber men in their classrooms. But have you ever asked an executive to count the number of women in an airport during peak business travel times?

Female enrollment surpassed that of men in Canadian universities years ago, but is this reflected in corporate, political, public service, and scholarly power structures? The short answer is no. The long answer, though, suggests that women have been quietly redefining and renegotiating professional boundaries and career progression trajectories.

The so-called feminization of certain programs, such as medicine, education, and the arts, has become a university-wide phenomenon. And while much of the concern focuses around what this trend means for men, insufficient attention has been paid to what it means for women, particularly after they graduate.

Social scientific research on women’s experiences of work reveals that concerns about women’s professional advancement have also coincided with concerns about work-life balance. In other words, the social and economic transformation of post-industrial economies created two difficult-to-reconcile goals for women: to make it to the top of the professional ladder while also being available to care for family.

It is still the case that women assume a greater share of the parenting and elder care responsibilities and that owing to a dearth of family-friendly work policies women struggle more than men to combine care and work. Researchers in the social sciences and humanities show that while many women feel dissatisfied, unsupported, and torn between work and care, there is no shortage of women who are managing both effectively.

What’s nonetheless clear is that through this struggle, women have brought into focus an important discussion about, if not reformulation of, career-life balance. In the process, Canadians are questioning and remaking gender constructs and the interconnectedness of public and private.

The usual response to gender imbalance is to ask how to get more women into traditionally male-dominated math, science, and engineering programs and by extension into traditionally male-dominated businesses. Hence the scarcity of women in boardrooms, to take just one example, is framed as a problem that needs fixing. And it does.

The Globe and Mail's own annual ‘Board Games’ corporate governance rankings found that women have been making glacial progress when it comes to joining corporate boards. The report called for reform, citing nine countries that since 2008 have adopted quota requirements for board diversity. At least 41 per cent of the companies on the S&P/TSX index still lack a least one woman on their boards and that number appears to be moving in the wrong direction.

Beata Caranci, chief economist for TD Bank, found recently that, at just 11 per cent, the number of female board members for S&P/TSX index firms is disproportionate to the otherwise steady increase in women’s participation in the labour force. Ms. Caranci’s report recommended a “comply or explain” policy, which the Ontario government intends to enshrine in policy, in an effort to “produce a dramatic increase in gender diversity in upper corporate echelons.”

There’s no arguing that diversity on corporate boards matters. But if women are self-selecting, choosing university programs and careers that better reflect their own work-life priorities, then quotas or “comply or explain” policies will only create a culture of tokenism and recreate the same gendered hierarchies and divides that produced the inequalities and imbalances in the first place.

Erin Anderssen’s excellent essay in The Globe last month featured dads who are opting out of the long work hours in favour of spending more time with their families. “Top male executives,” Ms. Anderssen writes, “are ditching work to hang out with their kids.” Others are taking lesser executive positions. While women are being encouraged to “lean in,” men are increasingly trying to “lean out” and follow the more balanced work-life path that women began blazing generations ago.

We’re facing a big future challenge. Already, men and women are reworking their lives to reflect their shifting roles and responsibilities. Now, we need to encourage and incorporate research from the social sciences and humanities into business, health, and policy-making communities to help reshape the culture of work to reflect the realities of women, men, and their families, not the other way around.

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