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The odds are stacked against them: women make up 45 per cent of the Canadian workforce in entry-level positions, but are 30 per cent less likely than their male counterparts to be promoted to the next level. Their chances for further advancement are even lower – women are 60 per cent less likely than men to make the leap from director to vice-president, says a 2017 Kinsey study.

With only 3.3 per cent of TSX-listed companies having a woman CEO, and only 3.5 per cent of boards having a female board chair (according to a recent Osler report), what can we learn from the women who succeed?

Sherri Stevens, CEO of the Women’s Executive Network (WXN), a member-based organization dedicated to the advancement, development and recognition of professional women in Canada, believes there are some things the top 100 women the organization recognizes annually have in common.

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While everyone’s story is different, these leaders are resilient and strong, she says. “They have grit. They have faced professional and personal challenges and have come out the other side with a stronger sense of purpose and drive. They also often feel as if they are on this journey alone.”

Among last year’s top 100 award recipients was Jennifer Flanagan, CEO and co-founder of Actua, which is dedicated to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outreach.

Women account for less than 30 per cent of the workforce in STEM-related jobs, says Ms. Flanagan. “We still have a long way to go to reach gender parity in STEM fields. And since they are an important driver of economic and social prosperity, it doesn’t make sense to leave half the population out of the talent pool.”

In addition, evidence suggests that when women are included in research and innovation, outcomes are better, she says.

One of the priorities of Actua’s network, which runs programs across the country, is to encourage girls to build STEM-related skills. credit: supplied

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Yet a gender gap is already evident when children are in school, says Ms. Flanagan. “Actua’s network runs programs across the country, and we see a drop in engagement when girls hit a certain age.” When Actua’s 2018 national survey asked girls and boys between the ages of 13 and 18 about STEM careers, “girls recognized the importance of having skills in technology subjects, but compared to boys, they felt half as confident, had one-third of the opportunities to participate in skills-building experiences and said they were half as likely to be interested in pursuing related opportunities,” she says.

To affect a change in STEM fields, Ms. Flanagan advocates for enlisting parents, teachers and institutions. “We have to encourage girls to build [STEM-related] skills. Digital literacy, for example, will be required in many future jobs, so they are at risk of being left out,” she says. “When you consider the underemployment of women, the gender wage gap and the fact that single mothers are heading the majority of single-parent homes, it makes sense from an economic perspective to promote access to the best-paid and most plentiful jobs in the country.”

Role models – and increased visibility of women in STEM fields – can serve to inspire, believes Dr. Gina Cody, a professional engineer and the first woman awarded a PhD in building engineering at Concordia University. “I want young girls and women to know that there are no fields of study and work where they cannot excel, thrive and rise to the top. Boys and men need women role models to understand that there is no such thing as a ‘man’s job.’”

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In 2018, Dr. Cody awarded a historic $15-million gift to Concordia’s Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, which now bears her name and is the first engineering faculty in Canada named after a woman. “My hope is that a few years from now there will be so many women in engineering and computer science that I will be forgotten,” says Dr. Cody. “My dream is for a future that is inclusive, diverse and equal – a world where women, people of colour and other minorities have access to the same opportunities I did.”

Everyone will reap benefits in such a feature, since gender equity doesn’t just benefit women – it also makes industry stronger and society better, says Ms. Stevens. Studies show that organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles and board positions have a stronger financial performance.

“People bring different perspectives and leadership styles to the table, which not only help to elevate awareness but can also break down barriers,” she says. “Yet you have to ensure that women’s contributions are heard and acknowledged. To achieve this, it’s important to engage the men who are part of the team.”

In addition to HR policies that ensure fair and unbiased hiring processes and creating a culture of acknowledging women’s contribution to an organization, Ms. Stevens suggests measures like mentorship and sponsorship, as well as staying in touch during maternity leave, to help foster the development of future leaders as well as enhanced employee engagement.

WXN leverages the talent of its top 100 award winners to support emerging leaders along their journey. “We focus on all stages of the career cycle and make sure women don’t feel alone,” she says. “By shining a light on the women who are successful, we are letting the next generation of girls know that they can be an airline pilot or build bridges and cities. They can do all those things; there are no limitations.”


By The Numbers

23% OF JOBS IN STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields are women

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64% OF UNPAID CARE WORK in the home (child care, elderly care and housework) is done by women

65% OF CANADIAN WOMEN report that they have never received mentorship

75% OF YOUNG WOMEN, aged 18 to 24, have felt pressure to change their physical appearance because of their gender

75 cents - The average amount earned by full-time working women in Canada for every dollar earned by men.

Only three out of the 100 highest-paid Canadian CEOs were women in 2016.

Tackling gender inequality in Canada could add between $150-billion and $420-billion to GDP in 2026.

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1/2 of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16.

6x Indigenous women are killed at six times the rate of non- Indigenous women.

Source: Statistics Canada, Labour Economics, The Power of Parity, McKinsey


WXN invites Canadians to celebrate the outstanding achievements of women across the country by nominating candidates for the 2019 top 100 awards. More information at wxnetwork.com/wxn/top100awards.


Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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