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Linda Williams, managing partner of consulting at EY Canada, says more companies need to realize that diversity drives performance: “It’s about diversity of thought, diversity of opinion and performance. In a people organization like ours, that’s not only understood, but executed upon and measured.”SUPPLIED

Women have made strides in the boardroom, executive ranks and even in notoriously male-dominated industries such as technology.

They now make up 35 per cent of all management occupations in Canada and about 32 per cent of senior management occupations, according to recent Statistics Canada data cited by women advocacy group, Catalyst.

“Companies need to understand that diversity is for performance,” says Linda Williams, managing partner of consulting at EY Canada, who leads a team of more than 1,500 consultants in the technology sector. “It’s about diversity of thought, diversity of opinion and performance. In a people organization like ours, that’s not only understood, but executed upon and measured.”

While women are making progress in leadership positions, it will be nearly 100 years before they achieve gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020.

The greatest challenge to closing the economic gender gap is the under-representation of women in emerging roles, the report finds. For example, in cloud computing, just 12 per cent of professionals are women, both globally and in Canada, while in engineering that number increases to 15 per cent globally and 16 per cent in Canada. Canada fares slightly better than the global average in data and artificial intelligence with 30 per cent women, versus 26 per cent globally, the report states.

While we are seeing progress in Canada, in Ms. Williams’ view, there is much more that can and needs to be done.

“For a long time, the issue was supply,” she says. “The supply was sub-optimal to end up in a place where we would be comfortable as far as diversity goes. This includes various forms of diversity, but especially when it comes to women.”

Over the years, technology development programs at universities have changed and much more female talent is coming out of the post-secondary system.

“When we look at young people entering our practice and industry, we’re seeing an increasing talent supply of women coming in compared to many years ago,” Ms. Williams explains. “However, collectively as businesses, we need to support women on their growth journeys by creating opportunities for them to excel in key leadership positions.”

In her experience, there is much more awareness in the C-suite today around the importance of diversity within an organization when it comes to attracting and retaining high-potential female employees.

It can’t only be women talking about gender equality in business. The tone at the top is incredibly important, whether the top is a visible minority, a man or another influential woman.”

Linda Williams, Managing Partner, Consulting at EY Canada

Advancing women in technology

While women continue to be under-represented in technology and STEM fields, the rise of AI and analytics offers a significant opportunity to help close the gender gap.

However, corporations must avoid hardwiring in the biases and limitations that have held women back in those fields. Instead, they need to support technological innovations that encourage collaboration and empower women in technology to engage equally with the digital world of work.

At EY, that means investing in women in greater proportion.

Ms. Williams believes the industry must evolve and become more aware of the needs of women who enter the tech space. For example, EY has created affiliation networks for women and other diverse groups and has coaching and mentoring programs available for women to access throughout their careers.

“We are very clear about what our partners and senior employees need to do to create greater inclusivity and a culture of diversity, as well as how that leads to improved performance,” says Ms. Williams. But, she adds, gender diversity in any organization has to begin at the top, with a clear message and a plan.

“It can’t only be women talking about gender equality in business. The tone at the top is incredibly important, whether the top is a visible minority, a man or another influential woman,” she says, adding that Jad Shimaly, EY Canada’s chairman and chief executive officer, is very vocal and passionately advocates in support of the organization’s diversity goals.

Also EY Canada’s chief inclusiveness officer, Mr. Shimaly ensures the organization has strategic programs and policies in place that embed diversity into the corporate culture, including sponsorship and mentorship programs that help build leadership skills across the board.

“It’s not just gender diversity; it’s diversity overall,” Ms. Williams says. “And there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. We are clear about where we need to improve. For example, the supply in accounting is a lot richer than the supply in technology. We need to make sure that we’re keeping track of the areas in which we need to improve, while being precise in how we do so.”

Leaders should be looking at data to determine where improvements can be made. That includes metrics that measure the proportion of women at each level of an organization, the gender pay gap, and gauging whether unconscious bias is influencing hiring and promotions internally.

Predictive analytics can even help organizations forecast whether certain groups of people within their organization are more likely to leave than others, giving human resource leaders the opportunity to proactively improve the culture experience for those groups.

But at EY, driving gender equity goes beyond advancing women internally and extends to the organization’s acquisition and supplier strategy by identifying, developing and working with women-led businesses that have existing diversity cultures.

Women. Fast forward is the company’s global public platform to help advance gender equality by focusing on women in leadership, women in technology and women entrepreneurs. The organization also sponsors the EY Women in Technology scholarship at BrainStation, an online digital skills training program.

“It’s not enough to say we want diversity,” she says. “We have to be very clear on how we execute on it both within our firm and broader communities.”

Maintain gender diversity momentum

Numerous studies have found that companies with greater gender and overall diversity see the benefits in their bottom line.

Firms with at least 30 per cent female leaders can expect to add a 15 per cent boost to profitability compared to similar firms with no female leadership. But, Ms. Williams cautions, it is not enough to have a female CEO or a board member – gender balance throughout all levels of an organization is critical to unlocking sustainable growth.

“Diversity is a business strategy, not a fad,” Ms. Williams says. “It’s not about looking good in the media and on LinkedIn. Diverse teams bring diverse points of view. We need to look and sound like our client base, the make up of the communities in which we live and the diverse organization we are, because that is what drives long-term value.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with EY Canada. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.