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Executive Pulse seeks input from Canadian leaders on vital issues that affect our business and economy.

As of last year, women comprised 47.3 per cent of the Canadian work force, according to a Statistics Canada study this year. However, a Catalyst Canada report discovered that, as of October of 2014, women represented just 20.8 per cent of board directors of companies on Canada's S&P/TSX 60 stock index. Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada, offers her thoughts on the challenges that women face in the workplace.

Is women's advancement and pay still an issue?

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Very much so. We are doing a long-term study following 8,000-10,000 MBA grads around the world, men and women, and what we're trying to do is track people in similar jobs, similar careers, right out of school and see what happens. Pay is an issue right out of MBA school, with different compensation being offered to men and women. The study looks at average salary gap, which globally is just over $4,000 between men and women in similar roles; in Canada it's $8,000, twice the global average. The other thing is the kind of work experience that they're being offered. When we looked at what we consider hot jobs, the kind of files women were taking on and the kind of files men were taking on, we found on average men's budgets were twice that of their female counterparts, with three times the number of direct reports and more exposure to senior executives. That's the kind of work experience that leads to advancement, so right out of the gate, those are critical differences in compensation and opportunity, and that's the kind of stuff that really stalls someone's career.

What are some solutions?

I don't think you can get at that with quotas. We can talk about goals and targets, and I think they matter, but more important is to look at that in terms of patterns of behaviour in your organization. The compensation one to me is a no-brainer. The Sales-force CEO [Marc Benioff this year] took the salaries of his top reports home one weekend and basically yellow-lined them and said these people are providing similar roles and they're being compensated differently. So he identified in his top group compensation gaps and then he went in on Monday and said I want this addressed through the organization. That is not complicated, so as soon as you have the evidence, link it back to what's happening in your own organization and undoubtedly many organizations will find the same patterns.

What are some issues women experience in the workplace?

I think one of the nuanced things is informal networks: access to opportunities that might be gender specific which can create advantages or disadvantages for people in meaningful ways. About a month ago I did something on unwritten rules and it's interesting: who speaks at meetings, what the culture of an organization is, how important things like being invited out to dinner with senior executives is, how important it is to have common interests like sports, maybe playing a hockey or golf game together. They do matter, and our message to companies is you don't want to diminish people building strong relationships; you want to be aware of a disproportionate impact of things like unwritten rules on issues like visibility, exposure and advancement.

How are women in leadership roles perceived by their male colleagues?

I think there are perception issues with leaders and that's not a male issue. We're finding in our research that men and women have somewhat defined perceptions of what a leader looks like and more often than not it associates with characteristics that they view as male characteristics. That plays out in companies; I think there's much more openness today to what a leader looks like than even 10 years ago. I'm a fast-talking, hand-talking, feisty middle-aged woman and I think there's much more fit and room for my style today than there was 10 or 15 years ago. I think that's by virtue of having role models in visible positions. I think Kathleen Taylor [the first woman to chair the board at a major Canadian bank] is a phenomenal role model at Royal Bank of Canada, she's very much who she is. I just did a book discussion with Kirstine Stewart, [media vice-president of North America for Twitter Inc.]. She's published a book, Our Turn. It's a great book and a great message for women and she's very much who she is. They all have different styles but I think that is significant because as people see different styles and see women in roles with real influence reflected across organizations you start to feel that you don't have to fit into a certain mould.

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What are some realities that women may face that men may experience to a lesser extent?

Not every job affords the opportunity for flexibility, but as much as you possibly can in a workplace, men and women are prioritizing flexibility. What does that mean in real terms? If you set very clear objectives and goals for someone and you're managing them well, you can give them a lot of latitude in how they get their work done. Look at some of the companies that are changing our lives: The last thing they're doing is saying come in at 8, leave at 6, be four offices down from me so I have access to you. So I think flexibility is huge for men and women. The one distinction more typically is women do take time out. I stepped out twice for my kids and when you do come back, it's pretty nuanced; you have to reclaim your space in a way that's both diplomatic but fairly assertive. That I think is more typically felt by women not men and it is something that requires thoughtful navigation.

Are women's opinions and expertise valued in today's business world?

They're valued in that people understand on some levels the real need to have diverse experiences and thoughts around the table. So every leader would say, 'I value very much the opinion and experiences of women in the same way I do men in my organization,' making sure they're moving through the ranks fluidly and reflected in different parts of an organization and in senior leadership roles. Where we need to really focus our energy is in some visible roles because that pyramid where women drop off after the management level isn't going to change without work and it's not that women are having babies. There are much more systemic issues at play.

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