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The Bombardier C Series jetliner

Ryan Remiorz

Bombardier Aerospace is one of the world's largest producers of civil aircraft, with nearly 17,000 full-time employees in Canada. But its areas of engineering and manufacturing traditionally haven't attracted many women.

The company is out to change that.

"We've broadened our strategy to increase diversity, with having more women throughout the organization as a top priority," says Elisabeth Bussé, director of leadership development and talent management at the Dorval, Que.-based organization, a division of Montreal's Bombardier Inc. "Increasing diversity is a business strategy: We want our employees to be representative of the community in which we do business."

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Women have made up two-thirds of the recent growth in the Canadian work force, climbing from 35 per cent in the 1970s to 50 per cent in 2005, according to the book Organizational Behavior: Managing People and Organizations. Following its inaugural two-day Women in Leadership Forum in Montreal in 2010, Bombardier Aerospace set a goal to increase the percentage of women in management positions from the current 16 per cent to 25 per cent by next year.

Expanding diversity while recruiting top talent with specialized skills is a challenge for any company. But Bombardier Aerospace has turned an obstacle into opportunity by taking a diverse approach.

For example, its Women in Leadership Program, which aims to get women into the company's talent acceleration pool (TAP). The proportion of women in the TAP program reached 30 per cent in 2010.

To continue to broaden the scope of an inclusive workplace - Bombardier Aerospace employees currently represent 40 nationalities - it collaborates with PROMIS (Promotion, Intégration, société nouvelle), a non-profit organization that promotes the integration of immigrants and refugees into Quebec society.

Then there is the common-sense marketing strategy of raising the profile of female leaders such as Julie Brulotte, an aerospace mechanical engineer and project manager of the C-Series, a new commercial aircraft. She and others participate in career fairs at universities, colleges and even high schools.

"We want to show young women that working as an engineer at Bombardier doesn't have to just be a dream but is a reality," says Stephane Pelletier, senior director of talent acquisition and human resources.

Ms. Brulotte acknowledges she has a role in encouraging more women to pursue a career in engineering. And although she's far outnumbered by her male peers, she's never felt in any way a minority.

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"If you're competent, that's all that matters," says Ms. Brulotte, a mother of three whose father was an engineer. "It's important to lead by example, for young women to see for themselves that they don't have to make a choice between having a family and being an engineer."

Although recruiting more female employees is crucial, it's just one part of the organization's greater diversity initiatives. With a recruiting team of 30 that works in collaboration with headhunting firms abroad, the company is using a range of tactics to hire people of various ethnic backgrounds and abilities as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered applicants. The status of each area is reviewed monthly, and a key performance indicator is in place to specifically measure the turnover rate for new immigrants.

While aggressive, far-reaching recruitment strategies are vital to establishing and maintaining a diverse work force, the principles of diversity must be embedded in the organization's culture at all levels to ensure success.

Anne Fawcett, a Toronto-based partner at Caldwell Partners International, says that sustaining diversity requires a systemic process.

"Diversity needs to be approached from multiple levels and be part of a company's philosophy, policy, practices, monitoring and statistical measurement that links results to performance," Ms. Fawcett says. "If the CEO doesn't believe in it then nobody else is going to pay much attention."

Seeking out - and maintaining - the best candidates is a must for any business determined to overcome diversity barriers. But, Ms. Fawcett notes, the process must be egalitarian: Everyone who's able to compete for a position must have the chance to do so in an open and transparent environment.

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To make sure the most qualified applicant gets the job, Bombardier Aerospace's leaders receive training in inclusive recruitment strategies to develop a better understanding of cultural biases and perceptions.

A diverse work force yields a variety of perspectives, better customer service, creative problem-solving, and increased productivity, profit, and return on investment. Bombardier Aerospace's revenues amounted to $9.4-billion for the year ending January 31, 2010. During fiscal year 2010, Aerospace received 11 net orders and delivered 302 aircraft.

Diversity also has an effect on the greater good.

"There has to be a bond between social purpose and business necessity," Ms. Fawcett says. "Social purpose creates a framework and appeals to a sense of pride, of what's right. The business aspect puts systems in place and statistical measurements in place that link compensation to results. That's the magic combination."

Ideas take flight

Julie Brulotte from Bombardier sounds off on what traditionally male-dominated companies can do to attract, maintain and advance female employees:

Put coaching and mentoring in place

"I've had regular contact with other senior female leaders, women of all different levels of experience. They're always available to me to discuss business and personal aspects of working at Bombardier."

Send the right messages

Reinforce the message that women don't have to give up family to hold down leadership positions. This might seem obvious, but many women still feel that moving up the ladder requires never going on maternity leave. "I have three kids, and I've never felt that my maternity leaves have slowed down a project or my own development. I've always come back to new challenges and new opportunities."

Reach out to future leaders

"At networking events or by partnering with schools, take feedback and questions from young women. We do need to sell the profession to these women, and we need to lead by example."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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