This week's series of Leadership Labs is being published in conjunction with International Women's Day.
Without doubt, the most commonly cited defence I hear from business leaders who have little or no gender diversity in their management teams is that there is simply no pipeline of talented women for the roles. The talented women that may have existed at more junior or mid-levels all went home to have babies and chose family over career.
It is time we finally debunk the myth that mothers are not working, or that if they are working that they do not have high career aspirations and the need to financially provide for their children. Seventy-three per cent of mothers with children under the age of 16 in Canada are working. More importantly, women are increasingly the most significant, or sole, breadwinners in their homes. In Canada, women are the primary breadwinner in 30 per cent of households. In the U.S. that number is 40 per cent. Not only are women working, but their success in their careers is critical to their family's well-being and future.
One element which skews the perception of senior executives on women, work and children is their position in the top 1 per cent club, i.e. those with incomes in the top 1 per cent of the Canadian population. Senior executives are typically very well compensated. They have the luxury of choosing to have a single income earner and one partner at home. Chances are, most of their peers and friends have had that same experience. It is easy to assume that one's own reality is representative of the majority, but senior leaders need to remind themselves that it is only representative of 1 per cent of the population.
Women have invested heavily in their education for decades and have outnumbered male university graduates for 25 years. Women with university degrees also have similar labour participation rates to those of men, at about 75 per cent. Furthermore, women with a bachelor's degree or higher are more likely to live in a female breadwinner family than those with lower levels of education. Make no mistake, there is a vast pool of educated, talented women working in Canada and they do want, and need, to thrive in their careers.
If you are a senior leader, challenge yourself to stop chalking up the lack of gender diversity on your executive team to women's role as mothers.
1. Get to know the talented women you have at the junior- and mid-levels in your company and understand their career aspirations. Typically, the executive suite has little impact on promotions at the junior- and mid- levels. You may be losing future leaders because you didn't take the time to meet them and understand the value they bring to the organization.
2. If your company is losing women at the middle management level, don't assume they simply went home to care for families. If your middle managers tell you that is the reason, challenge them. Typically, managers are really great at managing and promoting people just like themselves. Can your managers develop diverse talent? Are they comfortable managing women?
3. If you find your organization does very well on gender diversity at the junior and middle management level but not at the senior levels, take a look at the average tenure of men and women at each level in the organization. Do women tend to stay in roles for longer and get promoted less quickly than men? If so, do you think these women really are less talented and deserving of promotion, or could the promotion system be biased towards the dominant group in leadership today?
Women want to have successful careers, because they are educated and talented, and in the vast majority of Canadian households, because they are significant breadwinners. The fact that these women are not making it to senior leadership roles in corporate Canada is not only a loss of talent for the executive suites, it is a loss of income and opportunity for those women and their families.
Clinging to this myth that mothers are not working and that women's careers and income are not critical to their family's well-being is a key barrier for women in the corporate world. It is time we leave that argument in the history books and start challenging our organizations to build inclusive cultures that allow both women and men to thrive in their careers.