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gender equity

When Cate Blanchett accepted the Academy Award for best actress last Sunday, she took the opportunity to chide the power brokers in the entertainment industry, specifically those who "are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the centre, are niche experiences."

"The world is round, people," she said.

I couldn't agree more. Still, a mild sense of discomfort came over me leading up to International Women's Day. Will I have to say, yet again, that women in business in Canada have enjoyed little to no progress? Maybe not. Multiple signs appear to indicate that women in the Western world, at least, have made gains since last year. The business world seems no longer flat.

For evidence, let's look at the money. This year, a record number of women, 172, made Forbes' billionaires list. That's up 25 per cent from last year, and fully one in 10 of the world's billionaires are now women.

For those of us who can't boast a bank account with 10 digits, the future also looks more promising. A December study by the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think thank, found that the pay gap between women and men, those aged 25 to 34, has narrowed dramatically, with women's hourly earnings now at 93 per cent of those of men.

Next, let's examine the corporate climate. The mood about women's advancement appears more optimistic, according to a poll by management consulting and outsourcing firm Accenture. A survey of 4,100 executives around the world showed that 71 per cent think the number of women on boards will increase by 2020. A similar percentage expect the number of female CEOs will increase over the same time frame, with 15 per cent believing that the increase will be "significant." Almost half of respondents said their companies are preparing for more women in senior management roles.

In Canada, women in business are faring relatively well. PricewaterhouseCoopers' Women in Work Index, which measures the gender wage gap and female participation rates in the labour force, showed that Canada ranks sixth out of 27 developed countries, led by those in Scandinavia.

So let's agree that many companies across Canada have accepted the business case for hiring, promoting and fairly compensating women. Can we call this International Women's Day a win for women?

Not so fast, said Lori-Ann Beausoleil, a partner at PwC and its chief inclusion and diversity officer. "If you stop moving forward because you think you have arrived or have met a quota, then I believe that this type of thinking will actually result in many organizations moving backward as it relates to gender balance," warned Ms. Beausoleil, adding that the advancement of women is a "business imperative" at PwC.

Toronto-based entrepreneur Vicki Saunders, founder of the SheEO program, which supports and mentors young female business owners, sees new support from the venture capital community. She cites Portfolia, an online equity crowd-sourcing portal that is seeking to create "a new class of women as consumer-investors." Another example has been set by two high-profile Silicon Valley venture capitalists, Jennifer Fonstad and Theresa Gouw, who left their employers to launch their own company, Aspect Ventures. The Palo Alto, Calif., firm will focus on investing in mobile startups.

"Sometimes it takes time for our perception to catch up to reality and it's clear now that there is a tidal wave of support coming for women," said Ms. Saunders, who is currently running an Indigogo crowdfunding campaign for her initiative and book, Think Like a SheEO.

While progress has been made, we still have a way to go to include more women in the C-suite, on boards of directors and in venture capital, said Paola Murillo, a Colombian-born, Vancouver-based entrepreneur who was named one of the 10 most influential Hispanic Canadians in 2011.

Ms. Murillo believes success will come when women feel that they can be themselves at work, and stop trying to emulate men. "Bringing traits usually associated with femininity into business still seems to equal loss of credibility," she noted.

While Ms. Murillo's experience rings true for many, the momentum seems to be turning toward a "world is round" mentality. Even if pockets of people still seem to think it's flat.

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: