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There’s a lot to like about our third annual Women Lead Here package, a benchmark we created in 2020 to measure progress on gender parity among Canada’s largest publicly traded companies. Women now represent 46% of executives at the vice-president level and above, which means at least some companies are finally flirting with parity. But it’s hard not to be discouraged when you look at who’s occupying the top slot. Just 22% of the 74 companies on the list have a female CEO, a figure that has remained static for three years.

The situation is even bleaker on the broader S&P/TSX Composite. According to data compiled by The Globe and Mail’s Tavia Grant, 4% of the 223 companies on the index had a female CEO at the end of 2020. That’s just nine women. Among 1,000-plus named executives, 13% were women. More than half of those companies, accounting for 73% of the TSX’s total market cap, had no top female execs. In terms of racial diversity, the situation is even more abysmal. This past summer, Globe reporters surveyed the original 209 signatories to the Black-North Initiative—a pledge to increase representation of Black employees and tear down barriers to their advancement—one year after signing on. Just 105 companies responded, and of those, only a quarter had increased the number of racialized employees.

Dawn Calleja, editor of ROB magazine, Dec 2021Steph Martyniuk/The Globe and Mail

It’s not just in business, either. More than 150 years after Confederation, we finally have our first female finance minister but have yet to elect a woman prime minister. The federal Liberals have never had a female leader, nor has the post-Progressive Conservative Party. In the entire history of the Canadian Armed Forces, which has been rocked by sexual misconduct scandals, just 30-odd women have made it to the most senior ranks.

Are we to believe that half the population just doesn’t have the chops to lead? There are armfuls of studies that say otherwise. According to assessments of 60,000 leaders by a pair of Harvard researchers, women leaders are rated by their colleagues as more competent on nearly every facet of leadership, including initiative, agility, employee engagement and more. Women perform better during a crisis, too. A U.K. study found COVID-19 outcomes to be “systematically better in countries led by women” during the first quarter of the pandemic, and U.S. states with female governors had fewer citizens die.

When I graduated from university in 1999 (the last time, incidentally, this magazine had a female editor-in-chief), it was with boundless optimism. Gen X girls like me grew up being told we could have it all, and back then, it actually seemed possible. And yet, the eldest Gen Xers are now in their late 50s—which is to say the men of the Reality Bites generation are often the ones standing on the glass ceiling.

Of course we’ve made progress, and the vast majority of companies out there have the best of intentions. But good intentions don’t mean a thing unless they’re backed up by action. So until there’s no longer any need for a benchmark like Women Lead Here, I’d like to see a bit more of that.

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