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In the world of gender inclusiveness at work, it can sometimes feel like we've taken one step forward and two steps back.

It was only a few weeks ago when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canadian history. Asked why he thought it was important that half his 30 cabinet ministers be women, he replied: "Because it's 2015."

It's a notion that was clearly lost on Vestra Inet, a Web design firm whose HR policies were apparently influenced by binge-watching old episodes of Mad Men.

The Vaughan, Ont.-based company recently posted a role for a content writer and search engine optimization (SEO) specialist, adding that the successful candidate would also be expected to fill in as the receptionist. As a result, the company specified in its LinkedIn ad, "female candidates are preferred."

While the company was roundly criticized in social media for its regressive attitude, its executives would be smart to realize that diversity has morphed from social justice issue to vital business issue. Women aren't merely the primary shoppers in the family, they are on target to control two-thirds of the consumer wealth in the United States over the next decade. So understanding – and not patronizing – your customers and clients as well as your staff makes good business sense.

Most of the conversation about gender equity in business in recent years has been focused on the number of women on corporate boards. While this measure seems to be improving – according to the latest report by the Canadian Board Diversity Council, the number of women on boards has grown to almost 20 per cent – it's time to bring that trend lower down the ladder, to the managerial and supplier level.

"To date, much of the media has focused on the large corporates in the discussion around equity, with a spotlight on women on boards. This limits impact, given very few women sit on corporate boards," observed Barbara Orser, a professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management and co-author of Feminine Capital: Unlocking the Power of Women Entrepreneurs.

"What I see is that, the conversation is extending well beyond corporates, and to the small- and medium-sized companies. There is an opportunity to embed gender equity in corporate procurement as well, " she added.

Ms. Orser sees an increasing number of female customer, suppliers and investors who want to see concrete commitments by businesses to improve gender equity because it will dictate where they spend their money and in which companies they invest. As part of this trend, she says that a number of global corporations, including Wal-Mart and Pfizer, have made public commitments to increase procurement from female-owned businesses. Unfortunately, she says Canadian corporations have been slow to catch up with their American counterparts.

That's not to say there's no reason for hope. Ottawa-based Pythian, a global IT services company, believes that transparency comes down to more than just the number of women at a company, but their impact.

When Facebook, Twitter and Google released their gender statistics, Pythian chief executive officer Paul Vallée felt inspired to take transparency a step further. He created a new metric to measure the influence of women, called the Pythia Index, named for the Oracle of Delphi in Greek mythology. Other companies, he observed, apply the same weight to a female leader whether she supervises a team of three or a team of 300. This index measures the proportion of employees in a corporation who look up the organization chart to a female leader.

Pythian's Pythia Index score is 56, meaning that 56 per cent of the company's employees are female leaders or report to one.

"We proposed an index that gives extra credit for directors and vice-president. It's meant to allow companies to self assess who in the [organizational] chart has women between them and the CEO," Mr. Vallée said. Having more people led by a woman in a company will change it for the better, he asserted.

Voluntarily declaring their percentages, he said, separates companies that merely have good intentions from the ones that really advocate for change.

"I believe our company's heart and soul is in the right place, but we are still human and make accidental bias mistakes. You don't get to decide what your culture is, but you do decide where you get to lead it," Mr. Vallée said.

His company's goal is to increase its score and have other Canadian technology companies adopt the index to counter "bro culture". So far, he hasn't had many other takers.

But who knows? After its social media scolding, perhaps Vestra Inet is in the market.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

Follow Leah Eichler on Twitter: @LeahEichlerOpens in a new window

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