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“Jodi, I need women. Get me some women.”

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Contributors of the #movethedial report pose for a portrait in Toronto on Oct. 31, 2017. From left: Michelle McBane, managing director StandUp Ventures and leader of MARS Investment Accelerator Fund; Sabrina Geremia, country director at Google; Janet Bannister, Real Ventures; Jodi Kovitz, #movethedial; Michelle Scarborough, managing director, strategic investments and women in tech at BDC; Cassandra Ruggiero, national marketing manager technology sector at PwC Canada; Justine Kilby, head of global strategy at Ceridian; Whitney Rockley, co-founder and managing partner at McRock Capital; and, Ilse Treurnicht, CEO of MaRS Discovery District.Christopher Katsarov/For The Globe and Mail

As the chief executive of #movethedial, a global movement and organization to advance the participation and leadership of all women in tech, I hear that request often. I hear it from CEOs and senior leaders of the national banks, consulting firms, and growing and established tech companies with which our organization partners. Companies are competing for talent. (In the increasingly booming Canadian tech sector, the war for talent is particularly ferocious.) Diversity and inclusion are hot issues.

Finding qualified female engineers, software developers and women to run tech companies and innovation and digital arms of our corporates is a persistent problem for organizations – even for those whose leaders deeply value principles of gender equality and inclusion.

A landmark 2017 study based on a survey of more than 900 Canadian tech companies, co-authored by our organization, PwC Canada and MaRS Discovery District, found that women account for just 5 per cent of CEO roles and 13 per cent of executive team positions. More than half of the companies have no female executives, only 8 per cent of director roles are filled by women, and 73 per cent of firms have no women on their boards at all. And, according to 2017 statistics published by the National Center for Women & Information Technology in the United States, women comprised only 26 per cent of the professional computing work force in that country.

For many organizations, the issue is simply that there aren’t enough qualified women in the pipeline, and nobody has found a way to remedy the situation. Hence the refrain, “Jodi, get me some women. We just can’t meet our targets.”

But in 2019, a strategy to bring women to the leadership table shouldn’t be a side hustle.

That critical design, leadership and governance decisions are being made minus the perspective of half the population is particularly concerning in tech, partly because of its widely reported bro culture – which means the sector has farther to go than others to achieve gender parity – and partly because of the ever-increasing role that machines in general and AI in particular play in our lives.

The problem is by no means limited to the tech industry. The dial is stuck across the board. In 2018, the largest comprehensive study on women’s status in corporate North America, co-sponsored by and McKinsey & Co., found that women continue to be vastly underrepresented at every level. Women are less likely to be hired for entry-level jobs, less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs and far less likely to be promoted into them.

But a gender-diversity strategy isn’t just about hiring more women. It’s about creating the kind of organization that women will want to join and where they’ll want to remain because they know it will afford them the opportunity to grow and contribute and eventually lead and govern.

And yet, despite all the buzz about diversity and inclusion, and all the companies scrambling for female talent, I don’t encounter many that are making their gender-diversity strategy a true investment priority. Maybe they have a line about women’s advancement in their annual report. Maybe they have a person or office responsible for their diversity and inclusion strategy. But in the overwhelming number of cases that I see, the responsibility for driving a strategy around the recruitment, retention and advancement of women falls to female leaders within the organization who volunteer to take on the job off the side of their desks because they feel passionately about the issue. They advocate for budget and buy-in despite lacking any clear mandate regarding how much time and energy they should be devoting to the endeavor, or being compensated for this work.

But in 2019, a strategy to bring women to the leadership table shouldn’t be a side hustle.

What if companies took a different approach? What if rather than lumping their gender-diversity strategy under the diversity-and-inclusion umbrella, they differentiated it? What if they viewed gender diversity as a top-line strategic priority and treated it just as they would any other top-line business priority, such as a revenue, innovation, customer acquisition or global expansion strategy? What if they appointed a chief gender diversity officer whose job it was to steer that strategy, and gave that individual the budget and power to take definitive action to build a talent pipeline, and held them accountable for meeting clearly-defined targets?

I’m not suggesting that companies should focus on gender diversity at the expense of a multipronged diversity, inclusion and belonging strategy. Both are essential. But if they’re serious about achieving gender balance, the issue requires its own focus and investment.

We’re no longer in an era when companies can afford to treat gender diversity as a side hustle. If they want to attract and retain the best and the brightest, they have to commit at the highest level. Then they have to go all in.

Jodi Kovitz is the founder and CEO of #movethedial, a Toronto-based global movement and organization to advance the participation and leadership of women in tech.

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