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The Catalyst study found that women comprised 18.1 per cent of senior officers and top earners at Canada’s 500 largest companies in 2012, up only marginally from 17.7 per cent in 2010.

Hemera Technologies/Getty Images

The proportion of women in senior officer roles at Canadian companies is almost unchanged in the past two years and continues to lag, particularly at publicly traded companies.

A new study by women's advocacy group Catalyst found that women comprised 18.1 per cent of senior officers and top earners at Canada's 500 largest companies in 2012, up only marginally from 17.7 per cent in 2010.

The Catalyst census, conducted every two years, continues to show minimal change in the proportion of women in the top echelons of Corporate Canada, with change so statistically insignificant it is difficult to conclude it reflects lasting progress.

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"The general numbers are flat, and not hugely encouraging," said Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada in Toronto. "But when you see some of the companies on the list … where the numbers are actually impressive, you can see how that happened. … There's no smoke and mirrors. They really get this, and you can see the numbers reflect that."

The highest-rated company on the list was the Manitoba Public Insurance Corp., a provincial Crown corporation with five of its six top senior officer positions held by women. In contrast, the survey found 30 per cent of companies have no women in senior officer roles, such as chief executive or chief financial officer.

Among publicly traded companies – which include many of Canada's largest companies whose shares trade on stock exchanges – women fill 15 per cent of senior roles, an increase from 14.3 per cent in 2010. Crown corporations have the highest proportion of female officers and top earners at 27 per cent, followed by private companies at 20.6 per cent.

The only category to show significant decline is co-operatives, which include credit unions and member-owned organizations. The proportion of women in top jobs slid to 11.3 per cent in 2012 from 15.9 per cent in 2010, but Catalyst noted that the category includes only seven organizations, so even small changes have a disproportionate impact.

The data on senior officers is similar to Catalyst research on boards of directors, which also finds women are best represented on boards of Crown corporations and have the lowest numbers on boards of publicly traded companies.

Despite the lack of progress, Ms. Johnston said she is convinced more change is coming. She said a growing number of companies are adopting formal policies to encourage advancement of women, and more are joining Catalyst or speaking with the organization about how to make progress internally.

"I see activity going on out there that I don't think is really reflected in the numbers. I don't think we're at the beginning of a sea change, but there is stuff happening in the last year or two that is starting to have an impact."

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