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Editorial: Clear strategy needed to help women advance Add to ...

Canada is a laggard when it comes to promoting women as leaders of organizations. This should not be seen as a women's issue, but as a matter of competitiveness and innovation. By shutting out more than half the population, Canadian companies, government agencies, businesses and institutions are robbing themselves of talent.

American companies have become pro-active about hiring female chief executive officers, seeing them as change agents, able to shake up complacent corporate environments.

But if Canadians continue to wait for the gender gap at the top to self-correct, they may have a very long wait indeed. The numbers have barely budged in the past decade. Even though women account for 47 per cent of the work force, only 16.9 per cent of corporate officers and 13 per cent of directors at Canada's top 500 private and public companies are female. That number has only increased by 2.8 per cent since 2002, when Catalyst, a non-profit organization, began tracking female executives. Women comprise just 2 per cent of CEOs at Canada's 1,000 largest public companies.

Intervention is needed. Ed Clark, the CEO of Toronto-Dominion Bank, says companies that fail to embrace greater executive diversity will be "dead in the water."

Companies must consider setting voluntary internal targets, and working consciously to increase the number of women on boards and as CEOs. Targets are a way to make sure that the best people are advancing, and that existing leaders aren't subconsciously hiring only in their own image. Employees with high potential can be groomed for more senior roles. And executives can even tie an element of compensation or bonuses for managers to the goal of diversification.

This is not the same as affirmative action, the model used in the U.S., which establishes hiring quotas to correct for historical under-representation of certain groups, a process that can lead to backlash, and the questioning of women's abilities.

In contrast, the voluntary act of measuring and tracking the numbers of women at the top can in itself be transformative. "As soon as you start tracking, you realize the discrepancies, and it leads you to consider what you can do to make a difference," says Wendy Cukier, associate dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University. "That may be more powerful than more regulations."

Canada's federal Employment Equity Act, which does not set quotas but encourages preferential treatment in hiring for women, the disabled, aboriginals and visible minorities, has already resulted in much more representative leadership teams in the sectors that are subject to the act, including banks, airlines, broadcasters, telecommunications companies, the transportation sector and federal Crown corporations. The act requires companies to institute policies that will lead to a greater degree of representation of the four designated groups.

The results are encouraging: Women fill 27 per cent of corporate jobs at Canada's 44 largest federal and provincial Crown corporations, almost double the 14 per cent of corporate officer positions filled by women at publicly traded companies. This discrepancy illustrates that the oft-cited excuse - that there are no qualified female candidates - is simply not true.

TD Bank launched an internal task force on diversity in 1994 that led to a new program of non-binding targets, and a slow but steady change in representation. In 14 years, the bank, which has a largely female work force, went from having 8 per cent female senior managers to 34 per cent female managers and 47 per cent female middle managers. The bank's broad commitment to a diverse leadership isn't about filling quotas, but about creating a true meritocracy, Mr. Clark says.

Women as individuals can also work strategically within organizations to overcome lingering sexism, which is more nuanced than outright discrimination. Female managers may lack the same internal networks as their male counterparts, and must consciously seek out allies who will give them constructive criticism and informal "coaching." "People don't just advance based on performance, but on networks, profiles, reputation, many things that women don't pay enough attention to," says Prof. Cukier. Women are often penalized for taking a maternity leave. A new study by TD Bank economists found that women who leave the work force to have children experience "an unexplained but persistent" 3-per-cent wage penalty per year of absence. They must anticipate this stereotype, and reaffirm their career ambitions.

Public images of leadership do not favour women either. They are expected to exude strength and decisiveness - yet must also be more "likeable" than male leaders, though this isn't always the case.

In the political realm, there has been depressingly little progress in achieving gender parity. Canada's House of Commons boasts 22 per cent female elected representatives, compared with 21 per cent in 1993. That puts Canada at 51st place in the world for the proportion of women in parliament, behind Pakistan, Macedonia, Angola and even the United Arab Emirates.

While all three major political parties have nominated more women candidates in the past decade, this has not resulted in more women MPs, notes Donna Dasko, national chair of Equal Voice, an organization dedicated to electing more women. Parties could create a special fund for female candidates to help them get elected, and overcome the natural advantages enjoyed by men, including greater access to financial resources and business connections.

Without a clear strategy to help women advance, and a commitment to tracking progress in this area, change will not happen. The world of power and authority will remain male. And Canada will lose out.

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