The number of women in the top ranks of Canada's largest companies has climbed by less than one percentage point over the past two years, a glacial pace of change that means many firms are vastly underutilizing talented women.
A review of almost 500 of the country's largest companies by women's advocacy group Catalyst found that 17.7 per cent of senior officer positions were held by women in 2010, a modest increase from 16.9 per cent in 2008.
"It's pretty hard to celebrate that pace of change," said Catalyst senior vice-president Deborah Gillis. "If we look at the pace … between 2008 and 2010, it's less than one percentage point in two years."
The study found that Crown corporations lead the pack for women in leadership, with 27 per cent of top jobs filled by women in 2010. Women held 20 per cent of senior officer positions at privately owned companies, including Canadian-based subsidiaries of foreign companies.
The worst sector was publicly traded companies, where women held only 14.3 per cent of senior officer jobs last year, up from 13.9 per cent in 2008.
Ms. Gillis said she does not know why publicly traded companies are slower to promote women. She said the numbers are "really disappointing," especially considering other Catalyst research has found that U.S. companies with the most women in leadership have financially outperformed those with the fewest women in leadership positions.
The percentage of publicly traded Canadian companies with no women in senior officer roles fell to 30.3 per cent in 2010, from 32 per cent in 2008, marking a slow pace of improvement.
The study also found that women accounted for more than a quarter of senior officer positions at nearly 23 per cent of the 258 publicly traded companies studied, an increase from 15.2 per cent in 2008. Ms. Gillis says it is a sign that "the good are getting better."
Nonetheless, the study's authors said the findings show that women are not flooding into top jobs as the years pass, despite expectations the numbers would improve as women increasingly graduate from university and move into the work force.
"What's really clear is that [the idea of]lsquo;This will take care of itself, give it time,' has failed, and what we really need is action and attention," Ms. Gillis said.
Catalyst, a not-for-profit organization with offices in Canada, the United States and Europe, urges executives to make a priority of promoting women, including setting and communicating goals to increase their numbers in senior roles and tracking progress on the issue to ensure it is seen as a key goal.
Other advocates are asking the federal government to support legislation tabled in the Senate by Liberal Céline Hervieux-Payette that would require publicly traded companies in Canada to have gender parity on their boards of directors. So far, the Conservatives are opposing the proposal, which means it is unlikely to be adopted.
Ms. Hervieux-Payette said she has been disappointed by the slow pace of progress for women, and believes legislation is a reasonable solution, as other countries are adopting or considering quotas for boards. This week, European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told European companies they have a year to voluntarily commit to fill 30 per cent of board seats with women by 2015 or they could face imposed quotas.
"We're missing an opportunity to have talented people representing me as a shareholder, whether I invest through a mutual fund or a big pension fund," Ms. Hervieux-Payette said in an interview. "For me, the first item is the business case, and the second is fairness."
The Catalyst study looked at 468 of Canada's 500 largest companies where data were available on senior officer positions, including 258 publicly traded firms, 161 private companies, 42 Crown corporations and seven co-operatives.
It found the three industry groups with the most women in senior officer roles were accommodation and food services, public administration and "other services." The bottom sector was a group labelled "administrative and support, waste management and remediation services," followed by "agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting."