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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks as newly named Liberal cabinet ministers look on following the swearing-in of the new cabinet at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 20, 2019.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It’s now more than five years since Justin Trudeau responded to a question about why he sought parity through a gender-balanced cabinet with the words, “Because it’s 2015.” It’s 2021, and the message has not spread to other organizations, as the recent Globe series Power Gap shows.

Setting aside our partisan views on his government, gender parity, at the minimum, has not been the unmitigated disaster that anti-quota stalwarts would have expected. The cabinet has had its bad moments but gender parity has been a non-issue. Two high-profile women cabinet ministers left the cabinet, but so did the highest profile male cabinet minister, Bill Morneau in finance. He was replaced, as it turned out, by a female who lacked his Bay Street creds, Chrystia Freeland, and the country has yet to fall apart.

Maybe it’s easier for a government to adopt parity than a company. Thirty six people join the Prime minister in his cabinet, far more than the executive committee of most corporations, even large ones. The ministers are backed by huge bureaucracies, so when the Prime Minister turns to them for expertise, it is not their individual knowledge of the field that is critical. But in fact, it was surprising how many of his cabinet ministers had some familiarity with the issues of their portfolio upon appointment, and, of course, a key criteria for all leaders is a willingness and ability to learn.

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Supposedly good managers can manage outside their field of expertise since the important factor is their vision, wisdom, ability to deal with complexity, communications skills, grasp of new issues, and relationship skills. So if there are 10 men in the corporate marketing department, it’s not inconceivable that the talented female assistant controller could lead marketing, becoming highly familiar with the issues relatively quickly, and a gender quota for the top team is not as formidable as it might seem. Indeed, most companies fail in cross-training and a company that adopted gender quotas might boost itself with such a program at all levels of the organization, improving leadership development and supply of internal candidates when executive posts open up.

Ah, but competence. We can’t have quotas because it puts gender before competence.

That’s the usual, insistent and triumphant argument, blocking such notions.

I return to the Trudeau cabinet. The women seem as competent (or, if you dislike the government, equally incompetent) as the men. Given the widespread dislike of quotas, one oddly doesn’t see that raised as a reason for its shortcomings.

But more importantly, have the many companies with top-heavy male leadership found competence? Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at Manpower Group and a professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia Business School, says far too many managers are incompetent – listen to their subordinates wail – and the fact those leaders are often male may not be coincidental.

He argues we view competence as male – worse, the male characteristics we cherish are not necessarily effective, notably confidence and self-confidence. “When men are considered for leadership positions, the same traits that predict their downfall are commonly mistaken – even celebrated – as a sign of leadership potential or talent. Consequently, men’s character flaws help them emerge as leaders because they are disguised as attractive leadership qualities,” he writes in a book whose title he backs with research, Why do so Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (and how to fix it).

Stefanie Johnson, a professor of organizational leadership at the University of Colorado, says our desire to have a meritocracy leads us to mess up in hiring and promotion because we have seen so many white male leaders over the years that various research studies show we confuse meritocracy with white maleness. “The results indicate that when you tell people to hire on the basis of meritocracy, they actually favour white men. When they told individuals that an organization valued meritocracy – rewarding people in accordance with their performance – they responded by favouring a male employee over an equally qualified female employee. Making a hiring decision based on meritocracy caused them to adopt very unmeritocractic decision-making by giving an unfair advantage to men!” she writes in Inclusify.

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Keep that in mind next time you hear the argument that attempts to have more women in leadership positions runs counter to merit. Maybe it’s actually the opposite. Maybe we’re just fooling ourselves, victims of tradition and psychology. Certainly McKinsey & Company, in several studies, have found a link between gender diversity at the top of a company and better financial outcomes. Its 2019 analysis found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

Change threatens men. But for the past three decades, at least, efforts have been made to bolster women and overall little has happened other than men feeling threatened while they still grab jobs beyond their proportionate numbers and apparent competence. Our wagons have remained hitched to maleness, alleged meritocracy, and aversion to quotas. Maybe acting effectively will solve the issue and we can move on. Quotas are the answer, whether it be organizations choosing to adopt them or governments acting to impose standards – not necessarily 50-50, phased in, reflective of employment composition in the industry, but with teeth.

Because it’s 2021 and nothing will change if we keep applying the same failing approach.


  • We’ve been told hiring boomerang employees – people who left our organization but now want to return – is a great strategy since they know the company and their abilities are familiar. But a new study by five academics is more restrained. The performance of boomerang employees tends to remain the same after being rehired as when they left, with both internal and external hires improving more than them after being taken on or promoted. Boomerang employees are also more likely to turn over than those internal or external hires, and they leave for reasons similar to their first departure.
  • Here’s an intriguing meeting icebreaker from Canmore consultant Mike Kerr: Have everyone summarize their past week in just one word.
  • Non-profits are often needed more in bad time but a new study of U.S. tax returns found that non-profit revenues, balance sheets and spending contract during bad times and grow in good times. For-profits are more likely to be counter-cyclical in their operations.

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