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Canadian companies had an average score of 39 per cent in 2021, up from 33 per cent the year before, an international study on gender balance in the workplace has found. France topped the list at 52 per cent, followed by Spain with 50 per cent.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Canada’s gender balance in the workplace has improved, but still lags behind other developed countries, according to a new international study, drawing attention to the lack of robust and consistent legislation on the issue.

The report from Amsterdam-based gender research firm Equileap looks at 3,895 public companies – each with a minimum market cap of US$2-billion – amounting to 102 million employees across 23 countries. It gives countries a score based on a variety of factors, including the size of the wage gap, women in leadership roles and child-care leave.

Canadian companies had an average score of 39 per cent in 2021, up from 33 per cent the year before. While Canada has consistently outperformed the United States by three or more percentage points, it has consistently underperformed compared with a number of countries, including Britain, at 48 per cent, and Australia, at 46 per cent.

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France topped the list at 52 per cent, followed by Spain with 50 per cent. Of the countries measured, Japan had the lowest score with 28 per cent.

“We continue to see year-on-year support progress when it comes to gender equality of the corporate sector, but it’s painfully slow,” Equileap chief executive Diana van Maasdijk said.

Out of just 18 companies globally that have achieved gender balance – defined as having between 40 per cent and 60 per cent women in their work force – just two are Canadian: National Bank of Canada and Choice Properties REIT. Out of the 100 highest scoring companies over all, Canada had three: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce ranking 40th, Royal Bank of Canada at 77th and Bank of Montreal placing 78th.

According to data submitted by Canadian companies, the biggest improvements were at the board and executive levels, with only modest improvement at the senior management and broader work-force levels.

Canada has a relatively high percentage of companies that have published an anti-sexual harassment policy, and this has increased steadily since 2019 to 68 per cent from 54 per cent – higher than the U.S., Britain and Australia.

Yet only 17 per cent of Canadian companies publish gender-based pay information, up from 7 per cent in 2019. That’s far behind Britain, where three-quarters of reporting companies shared employee wage statistics.

According to Ms. van Maasdijk, one reason why Canada is not improving more quickly is because of a lack of legislation.

“Although Canada has a Prime Minister who has been very vocal about gender equality for a long time, it doesn’t seem like that has translated into regulation,” she said. She points to some countries, such as the Netherlands and France, which have recently implemented policies requiring that up to half of a corporate board must be female.

Others note that while legislation is important, it’s just one tool that can be used to increase gender equality in the workplace.

“It’s also about things like organizational priority, and leadership and internal policies and practices and regulations and requirements within organizations,” said Andrea Gunraj, vice-president of public engagement at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, who was not surprised that Canada was “not doing as well as I think we want to.”

Some legislation does exist in Canada. Last year, Ottawa passed the Pay Equity Act, which requires federally regulated workplaces with 100 employees or more to disclose wage-gap data for women, Indigenous people, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities. Ms. Gunraj said while it was long-awaited, the act doesn’t go far enough.

“It only applies to the federally regulated sector, so it has its limitations there,” she said.

She noted that while legislation can be powerful, ensuring it is consistent – and therefore measurable – is important. Harassment and gender-based violence are addressed in provincial and territorial labour laws, but are inconsistent across sectors and regions, making it difficult to understand legislation might be helping. Meanwhile, intersectional studies would likely show a more unbalanced story, she said.

“When you’re looking at it from the perspective of Black women, Indigenous women and women with disabilities, we’re seeing the numbers really just plummet.”

Equileap sells the data it collects to investment managers that create gender-based funds determined by the company rankings. Ms. van Maasdijk said the assets under management in gender-lens funds has risen to US$6-billion, up from just US$600-million 10 years ago.

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