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Corporate Canada must take action – right now – to help promote gender equality, not just for its own sake but also for that of the wider economy.NORBERTO DUARTE/Getty Images

Pamela Jeffery is founder of The Prosperity Project.

As the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill in 2020, we worried that women would be disproportionately affected, career-wise. Turns out, we were right to worry. In fact, it’s worse than we expected.

Even as signs of economic recovery take hold, one trend is deeply alarming. The Prosperity Project’s 2023 Annual Report Card on Gender Diversity and Leadership presents a stark reality: The pipeline of Canadian women moving toward corporate leadership roles has effectively dried up.

Corporate Canada must take action – right now – to help promote gender equality, not just for its own sake but also for that of the wider economy. Studies have suggested that such a move could provide substantial increases to Canada’s GDP growth every year.

What The Prosperity Project’s 2023 report found is that a generation of Canadian women poised to move into leadership roles is disappearing. The representation of women at the senior management level and in the pipeline to senior management have both decreased (2.8 percentage points and 11.9 percentage points, respectively) since 2021.

The findings also reinforce that we must do more to improve the representation for women with an intersecting identity (racialized, Indigenous women, as well as women with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ2S+). Women of colour hold 9.4 per cent of women-held leadership roles, and while this is an increase from 2021 (6.2 per cent), there is still more work to be done. Indigenous women and Black women hold less than 1 per cent of these roles.

Unless we change course, it means a very tough future for our country.

As leaders who are women, we created The Prosperity Project in April of 2020 to address what we feared was coming – a pandemic-fuelled downward spiral for women in terms of job loss, increased burden of child care and elder care, more likelihood of taking voluntary furlough options and pessimism about work force advancement. Our worst fears have been confirmed by what has unfolded over the past three years. Far too many women have given up on – or been forced out of – their executive aspirations.

This affects every level of every organization. If women’s representation in leadership roles drops precipitously, it is even more likely decisions affecting front-line employees will be gender-biased.

Reversing this trend is not just a social imperative – it makes good business sense for individual companies. Organizations that commit to increasing gender equality at the leadership level will be better able to build competitive and profitable businesses through attracting, retaining and promoting top talent.

Moreover, while the pandemic didn’t alter the forecast that advancing women’s equality could produce large gains in GDP growth, the trajectory is going in the wrong direction.

We are calling upon all employers to set and disclose progressive goals for women’s representation at the board and executive-officer levels, and in the pipeline to executive-officer roles; to gather and use gender-based and non-gender-based personal data to meet diversity goals; to apply a gender lens to return-to-premises plans and hybrid work force models; and to deepen and broaden a diverse talent pool.

Corporate leadership across Canada needs to move quickly, aggressively and transparently to get more women back on track to leadership roles. Our country’s economic future depends on it.

When women succeed, we all prosper.