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Kristine Remedios, chief inclusion and social impact officer at KPMG Canada, is among the Prosperity Project’s founding members.Handout

The share of women in senior leadership positions at Canadian companies is on the rise despite the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. But the number of racialized, Indigenous and disabled women in top roles remains small, and many companies don’t disclose any leadership diversity data, according to a new report that is among the first to explore the varied experiences of women in Corporate Canada.

Over all, women’s representation improved between March, 2019, and September, 2020, among 48 public and private-sector companies surveyed by the Prosperity Project, a non-profit founded by a volunteer group of 62 female leaders.

Women held more than 40 per cent of seats on boards of the surveyed corporations as of September, up from 37 per cent in March, 2019. Nearly 31 per cent of executive roles were held by women, up from 28 per cent. More than 80 per cent of the companies also had at least one racialized woman in the pipeline leading to executive office, up from 68 per cent.

The real reason behind the gender gap? Corporate duplicity

But the gains have been uneven. Black and disabled women each made up fewer than 2 per cent of directors and saw their share of executive positions rise from none to 0.8 per cent. Indigenous women made up only 1.6 per cent of executives and just 2.1 per cent of directors, and saw their share of senior positions relatively unchanged over the 18 months.

The toll of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests of the past year have thrust issues of representation and equality into the spotlight. Companies have responded by joining corporate diversity efforts such as the BlackNorth Initiative and the 50-30 Challenge. But the report shows many corporations have yet to turn those efforts into results.

“We know that companies are pivoting and making some really good decisions,” said Kristine Remedios, chief inclusion and social impact officer at KPMG Canada, who is among the Prosperity Project’s founding members. “But I think that there is a lot of hard work ahead for many organizations to actually lift this off the ground.”

While racialized women did see their share of leadership roles rise, roughly 90 per cent of companies still have no Black or Indigenous women in roles reporting directly to executives, a measure of those in the running for future leadership positions. “Ultimately, what the report really highlights is that these gains will remain limited when there are still so few Black and Indigenous women in the pipeline to C-suite jobs,” said Kona Goulet, head of Indigenous equity and inclusion at Bank of Montreal.

Change in women’s representation

in corporate leadership

March 31, 2019

Sept. 30, 2020

37%

Board

roles

40.9%

Executive

officer roles

28.2%

30.8%

Pipeline to

executive

officer roles

40.7%

41.7%

Overall representation of female-held board,

executive and pipeliNe roles

March 31, 2019

Sept. 30, 2020

7.8%

Racialized

women

10.5%

Indigenous

women

1.5%

3.1%

Women with

disabilities

1.8%

2%

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: the prosperity project

Change in women’s representation

in corporate leadership

March 31, 2019

Sept. 30, 2020

37%

Board

roles

40.9%

Executive

officer roles

28.2%

30.8%

Pipeline to

executive

officer roles

40.7%

41.7%

Overall representation of female-held board,

executive and pipeliNe roles

March 31, 2019

Sept. 30, 2020

7.8%

Racialized

women

10.5%

Indigenous

women

1.5%

3.1%

Women with

disabilities

1.8%

2%

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: the prosperity project

Change in women’s representation in corporate leadership

March 31, 2019

Sept. 30, 2020

37%

Board

roles

40.9%

Executive

officer roles

28.2%

30.8%

Pipeline to

executive

officer roles

40.7%

41.7%

Overall representation of female-held board,

executive and pipeliNe roles

March 31, 2019

Sept. 30, 2020

7.8%

Racialized

women

10.5%

Indigenous

women

1.5%

3.1%

Women with

disabilities

1.8%

2%

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: the prosperity project

The report also exposed how few companies are willing to share gender and diversity data. Of the 120 organizations invited to participate, 72 either declined or didn’t reply.

Many companies complain about survey fatigue, or are reluctant to require employees to self-identify, making it difficult to understand whether employees of diverse backgrounds are experiencing the workplace differently, said Pamela Jeffery, who founded the Prosperity Project. But the biggest barrier to collecting data is often a reluctance among top leaders to set diversity targets and then track their progress, she said.

Crown corporations have actually achieved gender parity in leadership roles, largely because they’ve set specific gender-representation targets and worked to meet them. “They’ve been deliberate,” Ms. Jeffery said. “Those organizations achieve results because they focus on it. They measure it.”

The Prosperity Project is looking to work with other companies on its planned annual report card of Canada’s 500 largest corporations by revenue, and has developed a process to help companies securely collect anonymized data on employees.

Governments and regulators should also require companies to set and disclose diversity targets, rather than allowing them the option of providing reasons why they don’t have targets – a practice known as comply or explain. “There’s been too much explaining and not enough complying,” said Ms. Jeffery, who previously founded the Women’s Executive Network and Canadian Board Diversity Council.

The recovery from the pandemic offers companies a unique chance to increase representation among diverse groups, said BMO’s Ms. Goulet.

She points to a project the bank worked on last year to create an on-reserve Indigenous technology hub at Batchewana First Nation in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. When the pandemic shifted much of the bank’s work force online, BMO turned the project into a virtual hub, opening up job opportunities for Indigenous workers in other remote and northern communities across the country. “I call this the kind of silver lining of the pandemic, in that we now have remote rules that are enabling us to access new and untapped talent nationwide,” she said.

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