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Canada a laggard in developing women leaders

Canada trails the U.S. and the rest of the world in having strategies for developing women leaders, a scathing new study shows.

Despite years of efforts by Canadian groups to promote a diverse work force, the overwhelming majority of organizations – 82 per cent – still don't have a clear strategy for developing women into leadership roles, a Mercer survey of 290 human resources and diversity leaders at Canadian employers found.

Canada lags in global comparisons. Globally, 71 per cent of firms don't have a strategy to promote women, compared with 82 per cent for Canada -- the highest percentage of any region surveyed. Seven in ten respondents in the U.S. and Asia Pacific region provide flexible work arrangements; in Canada it's six in ten. And more U.S. and Asia-Pacific organizations provide coaching, at 51 per cent and 45 per cent, respectively -- compared to just 37 per cent in Canada.

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Just 1 per cent of Canadian respondents believe their organization has a "robust" program for developing women managers while 5 per cent of their U.S. counterparts consider their programs robust.

"Frankly, we were surprised by the results, given the fact that the Canadian culture is one that values diversity in society, workforce and leadership," said Lynn Stoudt, talent management expert in Mercer's Human Capital consulting business. "We know that women are often included in diversity programs but we're suggesting that these programs are not specific enough given that women make up half of the Canadian work force."

The Mercer report landed in the same week a study by Catalyst showed the number of women in the top ranks of Canada's largest companies has barely budged in the past two years. At publicly-traded companies, women hold just 14 per cent of senior officer jobs.

The most effective programs to help develop female leaders are seen as flexible work arrangements, diversity sourcing/recruiting, mentoring and coaching.

"These types of programs were introduced to organizations in Canada more than 20 years ago and have grown to include men and employees at all levels," Ms. Stoudt said. "They continue to be helpful in advancing women by offering flexibility, building networks and exposure to the senior executive team. However, the numbers suggest that the glass ceiling has still not been smashed."

One in five American corporate leaders are "very concerned" about having enough women in their leadership pipeline while only 12 per cent of their Canadian counterparts expressed similar worries.

Solutions offered by organizations to promote women "don't always address the issue," said Colleen O'Neill, senior partner in Mercer's Human Capital consulting business. "Leadership development is a multiphase process that goes beyond flexible work schedules and basic coaching – it must include opportunities to obtain leadership experience, and more importantly, support from senior management."

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More senior-level women boosts the bottom line, studies have shown. McKinsey & Co. has found the companies where women are most strongly represented at board or top-management levels are also those that perform best, and are better prepared for global competition.

"Based on these realities, it is becoming clear that the discussion about women's leadership development has to be reframed," said Ms. Stoudt. "Instead citing corporate responsibility in creating women leaders, Canadian organizations need to understand the bottom line value in supporting and retaining women leaders."

The women's leadership development survey was conducted in Dec. 2010 by Mercer in conjunction with Talent Management and Diversity Executive magazines. The survey included a range of industries, from health care to the public sector and financial and technology groups.

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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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