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Emanuella Enenajor, senior economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York.

Emanuella Enenajor, senior economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York.

Neville Elder for The Globe and Mail

In Canada, men dominate the field of economics, and women are especially scarce in the senior ranks. There are signs of improvement, but a troubling gender gap persists – and it's 'limiting the debate'

This story is part of Work in Progress, The Globe's look at the global struggle for gender parity.

In mid-February, Bill Morneau, the Finance Minister in the most gender-diverse cabinet in Canada's history, went to Bay Street for the high-profile annual prebudget consultation with the country's prominent and powerful private sector economists. At the table were 11 experts representing a broad range of economic perspectives, including banking, pension funds, small business, the country's big banks, academia and private think tanks.

None of them was a woman.

While the government has committed to giving women a greater role in governing, it will be seeking economic advice from a field that is dominated by men. Even though a growing number of women are studying economics at university, evidence suggests that Canada's economics profession still has a long way to go in closing the gender gap, particularly in many of the most influential positions.

Have we achieved gender equality? Nine Canadian women respond Women from across the country share their aspirations and the challenges posed by gender inequality.

Among Canada's six big banks, whose economics departments play a prominent role in the economic discussion, just one of the chief economists is a woman – Toronto-Dominion Bank's Beata Caranci – while 19 per cent of senior economic staff are female. At the country's main economic research think tanks, 29 per cent of in-house economists are women.

The new Liberal government is in the midst of establishing an Advisory Council on Economic Growth to be headed by McKinsey & Co. head Dominic Barton. Other members of the council haven't yet been announced. Observers are hopeful that the government will opt for a diverse, gender-balanced group, but it's notable that the Liberals' Economic Council of Advisors, the group of economists and financial experts that the party relied on to help build its economic platform, had just three women among its 12 outside members.

Even the Bank of Canada, which until the recent retirement of Agathe Côté boasted an even split of men and women on its powerful Governing Council (the six-member body that sets the bank's key interest rate), has only 24 per cent women among its senior monetary policy decision makers and advisers.

For subscribers: Q&A: The BoC’s Carolyn Wilkins on gender parity In an exclusive interview, the central bank’s senior deputy governor discusses female representation in economics and her own journey up the professional ladder

The bank made a gender diversity splash in 2014 when it appointed Carolyn Wilkins as the country's first female senior deputy governor – the second-highest central banking position in the country. She says she's encouraged by the growing number of women who are studying economics, which gives the central bank a wider pool of talent to draw from. Still, just 30 per cent of economic and financial job applicants to the bank are women.

Diversity of thought, she says, is "crucial" to good policy decisions and innovation.

"It's important to think about diversity – gender diversity, but also cultural diversity – because we kind of have a natural tendency to want people to fit into a mould. You need to be conscious of that, so that you don't fall into the trap of confirmation bias or group-think."

"Younger economists, analysts of colour, immigrants, males, females, older, younger … in an environment where people with a lot of different perspectives contribute and challenge ideas, you come up with a better end result," says Emanuella Enenajor, senior economist at Merrill Lynch in New York, where half of her North American economics team is female.

The field is changing – slowly. About 40 per cent of economics majors are now women and a similar share are first-year PhD students, a recent study by the Canadian Women Economists Network shows. That proportion dwindles, though, through the rank of academia: 27 per cent are assistant professors and just 14 per cent are full economics profs.

Some aspects of the profession have changed dramatically. U.S. Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen is the world's most powerful central banker, and women lead central banks in Israel, Russia, Serbia and Malaysia. Ms. Wilkins is No. 2 at the Bank of Canada. Christine Lagarde is starting her second term as head of the International Monetary Fund.

Other things haven't changed much. Patricia Croft recalls that when she started on Bay Street in 1980, there was only one female chief economist at a major bank or financial institution. Flash forward to 2016 – and there is still only one.

Still, she says there are far more women working in banks' economics departments today. "That says to me that there are people in the pipeline who will hopefully rise to the top," says Ms. Croft, who became the youngest female chief economist ever, at 35, at Canada Trust in 1993.

Research has shown that gender has a significant effect on how economists view a range of issues, from minimum wage to health policy and labour standards, says Simon Fraser economics professor Anke Kessler. "If you think about that in the broader context, what that means is that the lack of female economists is therefore limiting the debate."

Women's place at the table is crucial in helping shape public policy, says University of Victoria economics professor Lindsay Tedds. "Given that most of us are dealing with public policy, and public policy has generally not represented women very well, the fact of the matter is, the more women analyzing public policy and influencing that debate, the better public policy will be in responding to women's issues."

Under-representation in the economics field stems from several factors, among them that fewer girls than boys may take advanced math in high school, and that women are less likely to get hired into or choose tenure-track jobs, especially when they have young children, Ms. Kessler says. Others say family issues are often also a barrier to women rising up the ranks in the private sector, where top economists face a daunting workload.

In their own words

Emanuella Enenajor, senior economist at Merrill Lynch in New York: “All of my managers in my career have been male, and they’ve been extremely supportive of me. I think it’s wrong to think that being in a male-dominated environment is necessarily a negative thing – there are a lot of colleagues and managers who are male who see diverse talent and want to promote and support it.”

Anke Kessler, president of the Canadian Women Economists Network and economics professor at Simon Fraser University: “If you don’t have women in the profession, you have a lack of role models. The absence of women in prominent positions makes it difficult for other women to envision themselves in those roles.”

Carolyn Wilkins, senior deputy governor, Bank of Canada: “It’s a responsibility, maybe it’s more of a hope, that I would inspire young people, and young women in particular, to study economics and finance, to think it’s as interesting as I do. I hope that I can inspire young people and young women to study economics and finance, and maybe even decide that they want to become central banker, or contribute to Canada through public policy.”

Christy Chen, former senior economist at Bank of Montreal: “Economics is the perfect combination of science and art. You need to have a lot of mathematics knowledge. And you also need to know how the social system works – economically, politically, socially. The outcome from economic policy affects many people. It has a very significant impact.”

After nearly a decade in the profession, Christy Chen had risen to the rank of senior economist at Bank of Montreal. The bank relied on her to deliver vital forecasting to help it assess economic risk exposures in its businesses. It was a job she calls "awesome, the best."

But with two young children at home, the long hours and heavy demands of the job were exacting a toll on her family life that she was no longer willing to pay. She recently left economics to take another job in the banking business at Bank of Nova Scotia.

"It was a very tough decision. But as a woman, as a mom, as a wife, I have to have a little bit of balance between my job and my family," Ms. Chen says.

"It's not for everyone, and it's particularly difficult for young women," says Sherry Cooper, who spent more than three decades as a senior Bay Street economist and was chief economist at Bank of Montreal when Ms. Chen first joined the bank's economics department.

Ms. Cooper, now chief economist at Dominion Lending Centres, is one of the pioneers for women in the upper echelons of Canadian economics. She was a chief economist as far back as the mid-1980s, at brokerage firm Burns Fry – an era when, she has said, male colleagues still shamelessly displayed naked female centrefolds at their desks. Burns Fry was purchased by Bank of Montreal in 1994, and Ms. Cooper eventually became chief economist there, too, from 2006 to 2013.

For the big banks, top economists have increasingly become part of the corporate PR machinery; they're expected to write reports and give interviews for media consumption, meet with clients and speak at public events to share their wisdom among customers and potential customers.

"All the [chief] economists at the banks give a hundred speeches a year, if not more. Plus they publish many, many reports," Ms. Cooper says. "You're on the road at least 50 per cent of the time."

"It's a lifestyle choice," she says. "You have to have a very supportive partner and family to pull that off."

Ms. Wilkins believes one key to nurturing more female careers in economics and finance is to have more enlightened, flexible workplaces that take family considerations to heart. "Those kinds of policies really help people face those challenges as they work their way up the ladder."

Ms. Wilkins at the Bank of Canada's Toronto offices in 2015.

Ms. Wilkins at the Bank of Canada’s Toronto offices in 2015.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Another key is support from role models and mentors. Research shows that universities that have fewer women on their economics faculties also have fewer women in their graduate-level programs. Studies also show that women generally have fewer mentors in positions of power than men do.

"That's a pretty critical component of moving up," Ms. Wilkins says, who adds that she was fortunate to have had "a lot of mentors" on the way up, and now mentors four Bank of Canada staffers herself as part of the bank's mentorship program.

"When I say I'm lucky, I've been fortunate, and I think 'why is that?' I would say there were the family-friendly policies of places where I worked. There were the mentorship opportunities that I had at the time. And then just the fact that the culture of the place that I was in was one that was focused on fostering diversity – not just gender diversity but cultural diversity. Those things are essential for attracting women and retaining them."