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Part 1: Why the executive suite is the final frontier for women Add to ...

It was at a small Toronto conference in the spring of 2004 that Phyllis Yaffe decided she was mad as hell and wasn't going to take the old boys network anymore.

Ms. Yaffe, then chief operating officer of Alliance Atlantis Communications Inc., was listening to a panel of businessmen, including veteran legal advisor Purdy Crawford, chief executive officers John Cassaday of Corus Entertainment Inc. and John McLennan of MTS Allstream Inc., bemoan the lack of qualified women candidates for corporate boards.

The kick in the skirt for Ms. Yaffe was that many of the women surrounding her in the audience were seasoned female executives.

"I was so fed up being told there were no capable women. I had to stand up and tell them that I thought they were stupid," she remembers. "I used every bad word I could think of. I was so angry at all of it. I couldn't stand the patronizing and obnoxious way they were talking to us."

Neither, apparently, could the several dozen women in the audience, who greeted her outburst with loud and sustained applause.

Ms. Yaffe's career was unscathed by her tirade. Within a year she was promoted to chief executive officer of Alliance Atlantis, and today the 62-year-old is a director on the boards of Cineplex Entertainment, Lions Gate Entertainment, Torstar Corp. and Ryerson University.

But for most of the women at the conference that day, and for thousands of female professionals who aspire to the upper reaches of Canadian business and politics, little has changed.

The number of women occupying senior management positions in the country's biggest companies has barely budged in the past decade. Only 17 per cent of corporate officers and 13 per cent of directors at Canada's top 500 private and public sector companies are female. The slim showing represents an anemic gain of 2.8 per cent since 2002, when Catalyst Inc., a business women's lobbying group, first began tracking the numbers.

The picture isn't any brighter in Canada's political arena. Only 22 per cent of the country's elected members of parliament are women. That puts Canada in 51st place, behind Rwanda, Pakistan and Belarus, according to a global ranking of female political representation.

Women have complained about barriers to the top ever since universities and business schools began churning out large numbers of female graduates with specialized degrees in the early 1980s. Today, however, the disconnect between the traditional male-packed boardroom and the modern workplace is greater than ever.

Women account for 47 per cent of Canada's workforce, and 37 per cent of mid-level managers in the top 500 companies. Their presence is expected to grow even larger as women make up a growing majority of university graduates.

For all this progress, the majority of successful female professionals appear stuck in a kind of middle-management purgatory. No female has ever been handed the reins at one the country's the top banks despite the fact that nearly two thirds of employees are women. Toronto Dominion Bank President and chief executive officer Ed Clark, who has made promoting women a priority, says a female will run a bank "for sure." His timetable, however, is sometime "in the next 20 years."

Women are so rare in the oil patch that the only female heading a major integrated oil and gas company, Lorraine Mitchelmore , president of the Canadian arm of Netherlands-based Royal Dutch Shell PLC, is listed as Mr. Mitchelmore on a Bloomberg Businessweek data base. A female CEO has yet to be appointed at major Canadian-owned investment, mining, forestry or accounting firms. With only a very few exceptions, Canada's national law firms have always been steered by men.

Compared with our largest trading partner, Canada is a laggard when it comes to promoting female executives. In the United States, 32 of the top 1000 companies are run by women. These companies have average revenues of $17-billion and include such global powerhouses as Archer Daniels Midland Co., Kraft Foods Inc., Sunoco Inc. and PepsiCo Inc.

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