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deborah gillis

The heads of many of Canada's largest corporations are concerned about a significant business issue: the underrepresentation of women at senior levels.

Last week, Catalyst Canada played host to more than 500 prominent business leaders at an event celebrating three champions of women in business. These senior leaders convened to discuss the importance of advancing talented women - not because they have quotas to fill but because they recognize that the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles is a serious issue.

Given that women make up almost half of the work force and are now earning more than half of the university degrees, senior leaders are beginning to recognize that they represent a critical talent pool. Yet, two persistent misconceptions have clouded the discussion: the mistaken assumption that women have made it and the playing field has levelled, and the equally mistaken view that promoting women is a concession to political correctness or a response to imposed quotas.

When we look to the people holding the most senior positions in Canada, it's clear women haven't "made it." Women hold only 17 per cent of corporate officer positions in FP500 companies and 22 per cent of seats in the House of Commons. An astounding 45 per cent of public companies on the FP500 don't have a single woman on their boards of directors.

As Bill Downe, president and CEO of BMO Financial Group, said as chair of the Catalyst Canada honours dinner, "The business environment today is borderless and hyper-competitive. This reality compels companies to foster business cultures that are barrier-free and where talent and ability are what defines success."

It's all about talent. And the goal is to identify and remove workplace barriers so that talented employees can rise to the top, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or other characteristics. Catalyst research tells us that the barriers to women's advancement are, sadly, still very real - gender-based stereotypes, a lack of access to informal networks, few role models, not enough senior-level mentors or sponsors.

A focus on gender diversity doesn't mean hiring or promoting less qualified women merely to meet targets. Rather, it's the recognition that barriers must be tackled to ensure all employees have equal opportunity to succeed and contribute their talents. As Ed Clark, president and CEO of TD Bank Financial Group, said on accepting one of this year's Catalyst Canada honours, "This is not about favouring one group over another. It's about removing explicit and implicit barriers, levelling the playing field so that everybody gets to play and they get to play at their best."

Business leaders have seen the numbers. Catalyst research shows that companies with more women in corporate officer positions and on boards of directors, on average, financially outperform those with fewer women. Companies with more women corporate officers had a 35-per-cent higher return on equity and a 34-per-cent higher total return to shareholders. And companies with more women board directors had a 53-per-cent higher return on equity, a 42-per-cent higher return on sales and a 66-per-cent higher return on invested capital.

Moreover, having different perspectives around the table makes good business sense - diverse teams support innovation and can help companies mirror and serve a diverse marketplace. Clearly, to be competitive in our increasingly complex global economy, companies can't afford to leave 50 per cent of our talent on the table and underutilize the tremendous potential that talented women offer.

Change doesn't just happen. Everyone has a role to play in levelling the field for women and advancing top talent. When our economy can reap the benefits of our nation's diverse talent, everyone wins - men, women and business.

Deborah Gillis is North American vice-president for Catalyst, an advocacy group for women in the workplace.

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