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There was a time when women were not the typical face of Canada's national railways.

Tracy Robinson remembers. Back in the 1980s, the new sales rep for Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. attended a Regina meeting, dressed in slacks, with a male customer. He told her not to bother turning up again until she dressed "like a woman." She didn't cave. Over the course of two years, she kept showing up in pants, and eventually won him over.

"You need to persevere and adapt. You need thick skin and, once you've proven you know how to do the business of the job, people get over it," she says.

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Ms. Robinson, 47, has used that same blend of perseverance and skill to climb through the ranks at Canada's second-largest railway, where the Calgary mother of four is now vice-president of marketing and sales for coal and merchandise. Like most executives, she works up to 60 hours a week and is on the road a third of the time. But she says the reward has been a fulfilling and interesting career.

Her ascent is an anomaly. Women may comprise almost half of Canada's labour force, yet they have made virtually no progress over the past two decades in reaching senior management levels, new research by the Conference Board of Canada has found. The proportion of female senior managers barely budged between 1987 and 2009, with men still more than twice as likely to hold a senior executive job. Of the 82,000 senior management jobs in Canada, just 26,000 are held by women.

There's startlingly little momentum. In middle management – a crucial source of future executives – the proportion of women has grown just 4 per cent since 1987. At current rates, it will take 151 years before the share of men and women at the middle management level is equal.

It's something that frustrates Anne Golden, the board's president and chief executive officer. This week's report sought to update similar research it conducted 14 years ago. The idea was to track progress in that time period; instead, the research showed little has changed.

"We were all surprised," she said in an interview. "We've virtually flat-lined at the senior management level and moved very minimally in the middle."

"To ignore the talent that you have in half your population is just to move in the wrong direction," she added.

More women in senior roles can bolster employee retention, improve productivity and foster innovation, research has found. From a financial view, companies with more female senior managers tend to have a 35-per-cent higher return on equity and a 34-per-cent higher total return to shareholders than those with a lower proportion of women, according to a Catalyst U.S. study.

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Canadian Pacific has taken that message to heart. The company has made a conscious effort since the 1990s to advance women's careers – requiring each department to have diversity goals, establishing mentoring programs, and holding forums where senior female leaders talk about their experiences. An aptly named group, "Women on Track," offers networking opportunities.

A decade later, that focus is bearing fruit. A quarter of its board of directors and a third of the company's top executives are women. The proportion of women in senior management doubled between 2004 and 2009 to 22 per cent.

The initiative is not perfect: The share of women in the company's total labour force, at 10 per cent, still lags its goal of 17 per cent. But there are almost 300 women working on the front lines as mechanics, engineers and train conductors.

It's taken years, but the company has achieved a critical mass where it's no longer as difficult to attract and retain women.

"The culture over the years, as there has been more women, has become more inclusive, the style gets more diverse, we listen better, we challenge in different ways and more appropriately, and at the end of the day we make better decisions," Ms. Robinson said.

Evidence shows Canada is sliding behind other countries in women's advancement. A survey last year of the world's largest employers found Finland, Norway and Turkey had the highest percentage of female CEOs. Canada was among the countries that had zero CEOs among the responding companies.

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The majority of Canadian organizations – 82 per cent – still don't have a clear strategy for helping women to progress into leadership roles, a Mercer survey found this year. That survey showed Canada lags in many global comparisons, from providing flexible work arrangements to coaching.

Some European countries, impatient with the glacial progress, are taking aggressive steps. Norway has a law requiring that 40 per cent of all company board members be women. Spain and the Netherlands have since passed similar legislation, and France is following suit.

The measures may seem extreme, but they're worth considering for Canada, said Geeta Sheker, director of the Rotman Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management.

"Given that it is happening in Europe and those countries have made large strides, we should be debating it."

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About the Author

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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