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Part 1: Why the executive suite is the final frontier for women Add to ...

In Canada, 21 of the top 1,000 public companies have female CEOs. But many of these chiefs are related to founders and nearly half preside over tiny businesses with annual revenues of less than $25-million.

"I'm appalled that after all these years there has been such little progress," says Sheelagh Whittaker, one of the first women to be named a CEO of a Canadian public company when she took the helm at Canadian Satellite Communications Inc. That was in 1989.

Ms. Whittaker, now based in London, England as a director of Standard Life PLC and Imperial Oil Ltd., shares the belief of many female leaders that there is a lingering "bias" by male-dominated boards to promote leaders in their own image. With so few female CEOs, many directors still appear to view female candidates as a risky proposition.

"Why don't more organizations see that women are great leaders?" asks Michael MacMillan, a founder and former chairman of Alliance Atlantis who promoted Ms. Yaffe to as CEO. "We're a cautious crowd in Canada."

Others blame a lack of ambition by women to fight their way to the top rungs. Some point to ineffectual mentoring, inflexible work hours, or rigid career hierarchies as obstacles.

Whatever the reason, the lack of diversity in senior ranks is more than a women's issue. It is a corporate challenge.

As Corporate Canada stakes more of its economic future on global expansion, businesses are increasingly bumping into competitors who view executive diversity as an advantage.

For a number of U.S. firms, such as Dun & Bradstreet Corp. and Yahoo Inc., newly appointed female chief executives are seen as change agents who can reinvent companies buffeted by rapid technological or market changes. Britain's staid mining giant Anglo American PLC tapped a little-known Montreal-based mining executive to be its first female chief in 2007 because it wanted to shake up a lethargic conglomerate.

Canadian companies that continue to present uniformly white male faces in the executive suite run the risk of alienating potential customers, business partners and prized recruits.

"When I walk into a room, and I don't care if it is as a customer or quite frankly as CEO of a company, if I am sitting in a conference room with 12 people that do not reflect diversity, I am really uncomfortable and really kind of wonder about what kind of company I am dealing with," says Anne Mulcahy, retired chair of Xerox Corp.

Elyse Allan, chief executive officer of General Electric Canada, says it is "extremely problematic" that a trading nation such as Canada has so many corporate boards that lack the diverse perspectives and management styles that women bring to the upper reaches of business.

"If your board is still reflective of what your company looked like 20 years ago, that to me would be very frightening in terms of the ability of that company's strategy to be forward thinking," she says.

Some of Canada's more globally-minded companies have been pushing the advancement of women for years, but progress is slow.

"The world has to change," says TD Bank's Mr. Clark, who attributes the glacial pace to a combination of lingering sexism and the choices some female executives make to slow or stall their careers when raising children. Women account for 66 per cent of the TD Bank's employees, but it has taken 14 years of informal targets and programs at the bank to increase the number of female senior executives to 34 per cent from 8 per cent in 2008.

Even though he predicts it will be many more years before a woman leads a bank, he says companies that fail to promote women to senior jobs "are dead in the water in Canada" because they will lose the ability to attract or keep talented professionals. "You're out of business. Get over it."

While female talent is still scarce at the top of most major Canadian companies, a growing number of experienced executives are finding success by leaping off the traditional corporate ladder.

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