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opinion

Students march during a demonstration marking International Women's Day in Barcelona on March 6, 2020.JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images

Jennifer Reynolds is the president and CEO of Toronto Finance International.

UN Women has issued its theme for International Women’s Day 2020: “I Am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights.” This struck a chord with me, given that when I graduated from university 25 years ago, I thought I was part of “generation equality.” I went off to launch my career confident that gender equity had surely been achieved in Canada. My female colleagues and I would go on to populate leadership roles in the economy, along with our male peers.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I realized that there was actually quite a long way to go in this country, so much so that I put my hand up to lead an industry advocacy network and spent five years as CEO of Women in Capital Markets striving to drive more women into leadership roles in the economy.

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, gender parity won’t happen for more than 200 years. At the risk of being labelled an optimist, I think we need to set more ambitious goals in Canada when it comes to achieving gender equality in our economy.

So how are we doing in Canada? If one measures gender equality by representation in leadership roles, then we can conclude that we are not doing so well. Some may think that representation in the executive suite and boardrooms of Canada is a blunt instrument to measure progress on gender parity. I would argue it is the most transparent and telling barometer to watch. The people in those seats shape the business environment for Canadians, making decisions that affect the short- and long-term economy and the jobs that support Canadian families. While I could cite a host of studies that show diversity in leadership leads to superior financial returns, the simple fact is that if women do not have an influential voice at key decision-making tables, we do not have equality.

The introduction of diversity disclosure for publicly traded companies in 2014 heightened the focus on gender representation in leadership in Corporate Canada, which has had a positive impact on the proportion of women in these roles, particularly in larger companies. However, the pace of progress is certainly not going to distinguish Canada globally, nor set this next generation up for equality. Over the past five years, female representation on boards rose to 17 per cent from 11 per cent, and the proportion of female CEOs remained essentially flat at 4 per cent.

Even if we managed to maintain this pace for the next few decades, we would only reach parity on boards by the middle of the century. To put this in context, similar disclosure requirements were introduced in the United Kingdom and Australia, and board representation has risen from 12 per cent to 30 per cent in the U.K. and from 9.5 per cent to 29.5 per cent in Australia.

However, more troubling is the lack of progress in the executive suite and in the CEO role specifically. If we are truly going to set the next generation up for equality, the current pace of progress is grossly insufficient.

Passionate speeches about the importance of gender diversity in our leadership teams can be inspiring, but when the applause stops, that is when the real work starts. We need commitments in the form of targets to drive progress. Only 3 per cent of public companies have gender-diversity targets for executive officer roles. Business strategy is grounded and judged on metrics and targets, and goals for diversifying the work force should be held to the same standard. Without setting, measuring and reporting on defined terms of progress, anecdotes and tokenisms replace true ambition to achieve parity in leadership.

It is time to pick a bold, ambitious goal for achieving gender diversity in the leadership of the Canadian economy. Do we ask the next generation of female graduates to be patient? Which generation will we choose to be the true “Generation of Equality” in Canada?