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On Oct. 6, 2005, Toronto's advertising community flocked to the John Bassett Theatre for what was billed as "a night of awe and inspiration" with Neil French, the worldwide creative director of WPP Group plc. The 61-year-old Brit, a former bullfighter, pornographer and manager of the heavy-metal band Judas Priest, is a god in advertising circles, an outspoken bad boy famous for his award-winning campaigns for Chivas Regal and Dove soap.

French was interviewed by two well-known creative directors, both men, on a stage decorated as a hunting lodge, complete with mounted moose antlers. He regaled the crowd with his Hemingway-esque exploits, all the while taking shots at a number of targets--advertising account executives, Australians, Canadian culture, hockey. Throughout, a young woman wearing a skimpy maid's outfit served drinks to the men onstage. "Thank you, luv," French would say to her. "Could you lean over a bit more?" Later, he fielded questions from an audience composed of industry hotshots, WPP clients and students who had come up from the States. A young woman asked French why there aren't more female creative directors. "Because they're crap," he joked, before launching into a diatribe about how women eventually "wimp out" and "go off and suckle something," after which they lose the edge required to excel.

A ripple of discomfort ran through the audience. A few people laughed. And that likely would have been the end of it if Nancy Vonk, a chief creative officer at Ogilvy Toronto, a WPP subsidiary, hadn't vented her outrage on the industry website ihaveanidea.org. "What struck me so hard," Vonk wrote of French, "was that in his honest opinion he was voicing the inner thoughts of legions of men in the senior ranks of our business." The site was deluged with feedback--some agreeing with Vonk, some agreeing with French. Soon, the media was all over the story, and two weeks later, French "resigned," a story carried in papers across the country and around the world.

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French's remarks created a maelstrom in part because he dared voice the truth: The field remains male-dominated--of the 81 "famous creatives" interviewed on the ihaveanidea.org website, only eight were women. As with many other hard-driving professions, the advertising business is not family friendly, particularly in the early years of a career. The culture is demanding, high-octane; the hours are long; the pressure for perpetual "edge" intense. That said, female creative directors with children can thrive, Nancy Vonk and her creative partner, Janet Kestin, being prime examples.

What provoked all the fevered op-ed columns and letters to the editor, however, was the fact that French's comments resonated in a confused cultural climate, where the professional aspirations of women are being questioned at the very time their enrollment in universities and professional schools is exceeding that of men. The discussion is fraught with political subtext--depending on who's doing the talking, women are either taking over the business world or are "wimping out" of it in favour of the satisfactions of home and hearth. Between those extremes, the truth lies.

Women comprise just over half of Canada's population and make up nearly half--46.6%--of its workforce, yet their presence is virtually non-existent on the upper rungs of power. Progress has been glacial--at the current pace, female representation in the executive suite will not reach 50% until 2046.

For those involved in the cause of moving women into the upper ranks, frustration lies just below the surface. "If you try to take the most balanced perspective you have to look at the progress made," says Rose Patten, senior executive vice-president, human resources and office of strategic management, BMO Financial Group. "A decade ago it was abysmal. At the Bank of Montreal, only 9% of the executive ranks were women. Today, it's 35%. But then you have to ask: 'But why only 9%? Why only 35%? Why not 50%?'"

Last month, Report on Business magazine published a list of the 25 most influential Canadian business leaders. Not one woman made it into the top 25. One male Bay Street veteran says the female power vacuum doesn't surprise him: "I'd be surprised if one woman was on the list," he says. That such a statement can be made in 2005 should be cause for outrage. But his opinion, like Neil French's, can't be written off as the rantings of a dinosaur. The under-representation of women in power positions isn't limited to the business sphere--it's apparent also in politics and academia. So, we must ask: Is it women's choice, the result of female inaptitude or the consequence of discrimination? Or, is it something else altogether?

that Neil French, an adman, ignited a fury on the topic of women not working hard enough is rich with irony. Some 30 years ago--as women were entering the workforce en masse, dressed for success and filled with bright aspirations--another adman created the unachievable Superwoman. In a famous commercial for Enjoli perfume, the heroine pranced about while boasting she could bring home the bacon, fry it in a pan and never let her husband forget he was a man. This mythical woman had it all--career, children, marriage, dust-free windows, multiple orgasms.

But since then, the have-it-all myth has imploded, and the modern corporation increasingly is viewed as an obstacle course for women. The first mention of a "glass ceiling" keeping women from the top came in a 1984 article in Adweek, an influential advertising industry publication. Then in 1989, Felice N. Schwartz, writing in the Harvard Business Review, introduced the concept of a "mommy track" and recommended that corporations promote two career paths: lower-paying positions for women who choose career and family, and a fast-track to the boardroom for those who make career their primary focus. New barriers are constantly showing up. In the October, 2004, issue of the Harvard Business Review, which now covers impediments to female advancement as a regular beat, Joan C. Williams described the "maternal wall," an obstacle that can stall a woman's career before she even reaches the glass ceiling.

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A growth industry almost exclusively populated by women has emerged, espousing the importance of work-life balance, networking and diversity (code for "not all white men"). At ground zero is Catalyst, a New York-based advocacy group that tracks, and advises on, women's progress in the corporate sector. Its Toronto office, founded in 2000, has more than 50 Canadian member companies to whom Catalyst consults, among them banks, major law firms and conglomerates.

These services aim to groom women for corporate success, as if leadership were something that could be taught. At the Toronto-based Humphrey Group Inc., playwrights and actors offer a course called Taking the Stage, which purports to show women how to project authority--not too much inflection at the end of a sentence; don't be too wordy; and never ask for permission (it counts Microsoft Canada and Bell Canada among its clients). At the other end of the spectrum is a semi-monthly seminar at the Growth and Leadership Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. Titled Intimidating Behavior in Women (formerly Bully Broads), the program teaches women to project less authority, to smile more, to lower their voices (Intel, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard have participated).

In bookstores, a booming female-executive self-help sub-genre also offers mixed messages, as reflected in such titles as Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers or the recently published I Can't Believe She Did That!: Why Women Betray Other Women at Work.

Yet, for all that's been written, for all of the women's leadership summits and centres for work-life policy, investigating why women don't have greater corporate power is a tautological exercise, filled with circular logic. People hire people who look like themselves, is one line. Another: The lack of women reflects a lack of female role models. Yet another: Women are wired differently than men and business is wired for men.

Catch 22s abound. The shortage of women in senior executive positions, for example, means the pool of female candidates for board directorships is limited. More than half of Canada's top 500 companies (51.4%) have no women on their boards, a statistic that is unchanged since 2001. In another Catch 22, appointments beget appointments, which is why we see the same women's names showing up time and again.

Barbara Stymiest, chief operating officer of RBC Financial Group, believes we'll never achieve parity. The accountant and past CEO of the TSX Group is one of the handful of Canadians regularly trotted out whenever the media needs a case study of a woman who has climbed to the corporate world's upper reaches. "There is self-selection going on," she says. "Look at business schools and what appeals to women." She has a point. While female enrollment in law and medical faculties is on the rise, fewer women are signing up for business school, though many business programs have made it their mission to improve the numbers. Consider the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Each year, it hosts SheBiz, a seminar to introduce female high school students to the idea of having a business career. It is also home to the Judy Project, an annual one-week seminar geared to grooming future female CEOs. Beatrix Dart, the academic director of Rotman's executive MBA programs, says her current passion is "to make more women consider business," though she has had to make work-life balances herself. The former McKinsey & Co. consultant chose the academic gig, with its drastic salary cut, for the intellectual challenge, but also for lifestyle reasons. "I tried to stay on as a consultant after having my daughter," she says. "Then I realized that she had racked up 45,000 Air Miles points before her first birthday."

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while some of the barriers that hold women back are hard to pinpoint, even more of them--like the kind revealed in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking--are so subtle as to be invisible. Gladwell describes a covert pro-male bias in symphony orchestras: When a search committee could hear but not see the applicants (they played behind a screen), the number of female musicians in symphonies went from a small minority to, in some cases, more than half.

Worse than being shut out, however, is being shut out and not knowing it. One study on networking among male and female venture capitalists in California found that female entrepreneurs perceived their access to male decision makers to be much better than it was. But these same women didn't even show up on the men's lists of potential contacts.

In the course of my interviews for this article, I talked to a Toronto hedge fund manager who, like many men I interviewed for this story, was willing to deviate from a politically correct script only if he wasn't mentioned by name (nobody wants to be at the centre of a Neil French-style dust-up). He blithely referred to "the tribal rituals that exclude women," meaning cigars after lunch, sporting events, even e-mailed porn and jokes that mock women's competence (see "An insider's joke," above).

When women do make big inroads into a profession, such as accounting, that sector loses status, he says. And women who make it to the top of the professional heap engender little respect. He knows traders who have checked out the speakers' list for Women of Distinction, an inspirational lecture series featuring prominent women. If a female CEO is named, the traders consider shorting the stock on the assumption that the company is being poorly led. "Why would any CEO give a speech about their gender?" he asks. "It takes focus off being a CEO." Using this Women of Distinction rating system, he boasts that he watched one company plummet from $15 a share to next to nothing.

Females just don't understand the game, he says. "If women were smart, they'd go to the Teachers' Pension Plan and demand female directors be on the companies of the stocks they hold. They should do that rather than wanking on and on. That's the way the boys do it. If we want Algoma Steel taken over, we say, 'We have the votes. We want you to do this.'"

Implicit in this fund manager's remarks is the belief that women don't have what it takes--or as he might put it, the cajones--to get the job done. And this takes us to the fundamental Catch 22 that underlies the male-female power imbalance: Men are by nature alpha, women beta. This plays out in a group-think that has calcified around the perception that men and women have different leadership styles, a premise that segues back to basic biology: Because women can have children, they are hard-wired to be nurturing--not in the sense of leading (for all good leaders nurture), but rather in the sense of supporting.

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Catalyst's study Women Take Care, Men Take Charge, released in October, seems to support this view. According to those interviewed in the survey, women are better at traditionally feminine tasks such as "supporting and rewarding," while men excel at stereotypically masculine "taking charge" skills such as influencing superiors and delegating responsibility. An Oct. 24 Newsweek cover story echoed this sentiment: "The conventional wisdom is that [women]are more intuitive, more collaborative." An idea repeated often enough becomes accepted fact. Even Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School, speaks of "skill sets often found in women--better collaboration and teamwork"--as qualities that suggest women will function well in a global economy.

Sheila O'Brien doesn't buy the all-women-are-nurturers view. O'Brien has keen insight into the executive mindset, having worked extensively in the oil patch and as a senior vice-president at Nova Chemicals Corp., where she was the only woman on the executive leadership team. Currently, she's a special adviser to the president of the University of Calgary. "If women are such great nurturers, why are they not CEOs of the hospitals?" she asks. "That's how it should play out, isn't it?"

But nurturing is code. For all of the lip service about motherhood being a woman's most important job, nurturing skills are undervalued, as is apparent in the status and pay accorded to caretaking professions like nursing and teaching. Disrespect plays out too in the labelling of "soft" and "hard" corporate skills--soft being interpersonal, hard being financial. "It makes me crazy that soft skills and hard skills are not of equal value," says O'Brien. "Look at two corporations that are building plants; both have access to the same materials. Soft skills are the differentiating skills that capitalize on human capacity--it's what gives a corporation its wings."

Research suggests that the women-are-nurturers stereotype takes women who don't have children out of the power loop too. Helene Cummins, a sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario, investigated how the notion of mommy-tracking depreciates even those women who never leave the workplace. Childless women, she reveals, tend to be pushed into "caring work," such things as overseeing committees on student welfare and departmental harmony. The result: They spend less time publishing articles, a traditional measure of performance. Cummins's work looks exclusively at academia, but she suggests it likely extends to women in other workplaces.

Ironically, "compulsory motherwork," as Cummins calls it, underlies the search for a solution to the lack of female presence in business. It is women, after all, who sit on diversity or affinity committees intended to advance women, the presumption being that a diverse workforce is more creative, more productive and less likely to engage in group-think. A June, 2000, Conference Board of Canada study discovered that organizations in which women hold the majority of senior executive positions show the largest sales growth. Another much-cited source is Catalyst's 2004 report The Bottom Line: While the study didn't establish a cause-and-effect relationship, it found that the total return to shareholders was 34% higher for Fortune 500 companies that had the most executive women versus those with the fewest.

Such performance isn't achieved by parachuting women into top positions--it's a gestalt thing. "Companies that pursue excellence have a strong culture around talent management," says Susan Black, president of Catalyst Canada. "We know that talent distributes across the general population."

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Certain industries are at the forefront of diversity--credit unions, entertainment, insurance and banks. "It's smart business," says Rose Patten of BMO Financial Group. "If you look at the demographic mix--that's your consumer. How can you not have some mirror of that?" Nevertheless, if you look at the top jobs in many of these progressive industries, they're still filled by old white guys.

Sheila O'Brien tells a story that illustrates the downside of group-think. While at Nova Chemicals in the late '90s, she attended an executive committee lunch where she was the only woman. "We were talking about a deal," she recalls. "And somebody said, 'It's not over till the fat lady sings.' And then someone else asked, 'What does that mean?' And all of a sudden, they're talking about the Philly Flyers being on a roll and how Kate Smith was singing the anthem at a game when they were on a losing streak. And then they trotted out a long list of hockey stats. And I said, 'No, no, no, it's about the opera.' I'm thinking, There you go. But there's seven of them for whom this resonates, which leads them to believe this is the only truth."

Achieving greater workplace diversity isn't just a corporate issue; it's a national one. Drawing more women into fields like technology and venture capital is vital, says Ilse Treurnicht, chief executive officer of MaRS, a federally incorporated, not-for-profit corporation devoted to biotech innovation. Like many women who make it to the top, Treurnicht's CV is staggering in its accomplishment--Rhodes Scholar, PhD in chemistry and past CEO at Primaxis Technology Ventures Inc., the Royal Bank's venture-capital firm. She's married to newly appointed University of Toronto president David Naylor, and has four children.

Female under-representation in technology, particularly in the leadership of that sector, threatens the country's competitive future. "How is Canada going to compete in the global market economy where the unit is the knowledge worker?" she asks. "As we build critical mass, we face an enormous challenge if almost 52% are absent from this mission. Women are choosing not to go into certain fields. As a country we can't afford not to include half of the equation--we aren't going to be allowed another 50 years."

It is a natural human reflex that, when confronted with confusion in the present, we romanticize the past. Hence the current fashionability of a 1950s-redux time warp, in which a woman in a skimpy French maid's outfit at an advertising industry event doesn't raise an eyebrow. We've swung 180 degrees from the mythical construct that women can have it all. Now the message of the media and popular entertainment is that women can have one thing--children or career.

In the much-publicized 2002 book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett proclaimed "an epidemic of childlessness" among women in corporate America. Hewlett noted that 49% of women who are 40 and making more than $100,000 (U.S.) are childless, while only 19% of men in the same salary bracket have no kids. "Women can be playwrights, presidential candidates and CEOs, but increasingly cannot be mothers," wrote the mother of five, who, at 51, conceived her last child in vitro.

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That well-educated women are dropping out of high-powered positions to care for their children has been a favourite media trend story for nearly a decade now. In 2003, The New York Times Magazine defined this female exodus, one backed only by anecdotal evidence, as the "opt-out revolution," as if it were a bona fide rebellion.

The theme reverberates in popular entertainment, where women's quest to balance career and family (and it is always presented as women's quest) is played for laughs--from the 1987 movie Baby Boom to the novel I Don't Know How She Does It to TV and Desperate Housewives, on which one mother's attempt to re-enter the workforce, even with a stay-at-home dad, is depicted as an exercise in frustration.

Harvard economist Claudia Goldin is skeptical that women are opting out. Goldin, author of the important 1990 study Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women, wonders if another agenda might come into play at a time when, in some graduate programs, a majority of students are women. "The question becomes, 'Why are we investing in educating these women undergraduates if they're going to run away?'"

The first scientific inquiry into the opt-out revolution--"Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success"--published last March in the Harvard Business Review and written by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce, also suggests that the trend is a myth. The study found that most women don't ever take time off; of those who do, 93% expect to return, though only 74% were able to do so successfully, and only 40% returned to full-time work.

To put the opt-out revolution in perspective, consider its first poster woman, Brenda Barnes. In 1998, she jettisoned her $2-million-a-year salary as president and CEO of PepsiCo North America because she wanted to spend time with her three children. Much quoted was her rationale: "I didn't want to miss another birthday party." Yet there was little fanfare when, the very next year, Barnes re-entered the workforce. She is now the chairman and chief executive of Sara Lee.

Still, the story that young women don't want to use their education refuses to go away. Sometimes the plotline involves young women who grew up with working mothers struggling to have it all, and who decide that the struggle isn't worth it. Or, there are the unscientific surveys of young women in elite universities that conclude many women plan to forgo their careers when they bear children. Goldin is scathing of such research, noting that a predictive survey of behaviour can't be based on what people expect to do.

In such a climate, it is no surprise that we're now even questioning whether women have ambition or desire power. In 2003, The New York Times Magazine answered its own question, "Why don't women run the world?" with "Maybe it's because they don't want to." By this logic, we can assume that the reason no women appear on the Report on Business magazine's power list is because they've chosen not to be there.

In 2004, author Anna Fels, a psychiatrist, wrote that women don't innately lack ambition, but cultural forces drum it out of them. Young girls are groomed to be eager to please, self-deprecating and unassuming, Fels writes. Those whose ambition survives get lumbered with patronizing labels like "bossy," "awkward" or "feisty." Fels notes that when women speak up in a work situation or compete for high-visibility positions, their femininity is assailed. They are caricatured as either asexual and unattractive or promiscuous and seductive.

The landscape Fels describes is eerily similar to the one Betty Friedan described more than 40 years ago in The Feminine Mystique. The book was attributed with jump-starting the women's movement that, in lock-step with the invention of the birth control pill and a falling real wage, propelled women into the workforce in record numbers.

Yet, amidst the doom, there's another view. Bay Street lawyers talk about "a new level of woman taking over," a "quiet player" who is career-oriented and strategic in her alliances with men. Family is not necessarily something they want, says one male lawyer. "Or maybe they've surveyed the cost and said they'd rather focus on career."

Talk to women who have childeren, yet have also risen in the corporate ranks, and they rarely focus on the barriers. Barbara Stymiest at RBC claims she's never faced gender discrimination. She's learned to compartmentalize her home and work life: "I don't have an office at home. It's not feasible. My seven-year-old daughter needs a lot of my attention. You learn to be as efficient as possible."

If there truly is an opt-out revolution, perhaps it's in how women are choosing to leave the corporate ranks to enter the entrepreneurial sector, where they start the majority of small businesses. Consider Rebecca MacDonald, whose life is a study in overcoming obstacles. When she immigrated to Canada in 1974 from Yugoslavia she spoke no English. Trained as a doctor, she was unable to practise here. Her husband died, leaving her with two children. Later, she developed crippling rheumatoid arthritis. In 1997, MacDonald founded Energy Savings Income Fund, which had revenues of $921 million in fiscal 2005. Profit magazine recently ranked her Female Entrepreneur of the Year for the third straight year. She's outraged that no women made it onto this magazine's power list. "What are we?" she asks, "second-class citizens?" MacDonald is one of the few people willing to say on the record that women are discriminated against in the corporate sector. "If I had applied for my job any time in the past five years," she says, "no one would have given it to me. I'm a woman, I'm an immigrant and I have an accent." The glass ceiling has two facets, she points out: "It's culturally ingrained, but sometimes women really limit themselves. They think they can go no further unless they're one of the guys and do all the things--play the sports, join the clubs--but they still only end up as VPs." And here we arrive at another Catch 22: The corporate bias against women can affect female entrepreneurs. It's acceptable for women to manage a small business, but when financing climbs above a certain level, it becomes a problem. "Banks," she says, "aren't as prepared to role the dice."

Women who choose to stay in a system based on the endurance model of all-nighters, constant travel and BlackBerry dependency figure out what compromises need to be made. And that means the recognition that certain careers do not accommodate breaks like maternity leave. Rotman dean Roger Martin mentions the tyranny of businesses based on billable hours. "If I were giving advice to any woman entering business, I'd say go for a career where the work is done on a value-added basis, where the customer is paying on output. Do not go where value is placed on input. You'll be disadvantaged, promoted less, paid less. What industry has gotten the most flak? Law. And the reason? The archaic way that law firms price service--by the hour. Accounting does it too." Martin notes that in some creative fields, such as marketing and advertising, you can sometimes even take Christmas or summers off.

Nancy Vonk laughs when she hears that. "Women in advertising can't take the summer off," she says. "What woman--or man--wouldn't love to take the summer off?"

In the heated debate that followed French's comments, some of his remarks were never reported. In addition to belittling women, he also said that his high-flying career had entailed "sacrifice"--constant travel for work meant he spent less time with his children than he would have liked. The point is significant, a reminder that in discussions of work-life balance the focus is on women, as if only women had families. As Goldin puts it: "Guys don't have the luxury of getting off the track." When people talk about possible remedies, an assumption remains that the next generation will magically figure it all out. Roger Martin talks of a looming "sea change" in which men are talking about leaving their jobs for parenting. "There's a much greater sensitivity among 25- to 35-year-olds," he says, though he admits he doesn't see much progress when it comes to companies addressing the needs of employees who take time off. "There's not a lot of thinking outside of the box."

Thinking outside of the box entails a social rethink, not another version of flex-time. In this regard Rotman's Beatrix Dart, who was born in Switzerland, says Canada is not as progressive as some European nations when it comes to advancing women in the workforce: "The culture here is not as supportive." Likewise, Rebecca MacDonald attributes her success to her roots. "I was brought up in a socialist country," she says. "Being a woman was never a barrier. If the guys could do it, I could do it--the same sports, the same university. When I came to Canada, I was shocked. It was far behind Europe, but we have made terrific strides. Look at university enrollment."

But university isn't the issue. As the Harvard Business Review claimed in 2004, "Women now experience the most powerful social and institutional discrimination during their 20s and early 30s, after they have left the educational system and start pursuing their ambitions." And you don't need a Harvard MBA to realize that those years correspond with a woman's peak childbearing potential.

Systems can change, provided the will--or the necessity--is there. When women were needed in the workforce during the Second World War, governments and businesses did their bit, even creating a propaganda campaign starring Rosie the Riveter, with her motto "We can do it." The U.S. government provided daycare for children, while the British offered daycare, prepared meals and one afternoon off each week to stand in ration queues. The Canadian government provided daycare centres and tax incentives. Such support requires conviction that the cause is worth fighting for. Which raises the question as to why such a low economic premium is placed on raising children. As MacDonald puts it: "Just because women can get pregnant doesn't mean they should be penalized for it." New economic research, much of it conducted by women, is investigating this very issue. Myra Strober, an economist at Stanford, questions the classical economic models, which assign a low value to caring labour. She takes issue with the old-fashioned view of economic efficiencies, using the example of a woman who books time off work to escort a child to the doctor. That is viewed as reduced productivity, she points out. "But we have to ask, as an economy, as a society, what are our values and priorities."

Also in need of questioning is the corporate structure, based on the male breadwinner/female homemaker model, with a rigid, linear career trajectory that penalizes anyone who takes time out--or who might threaten to. When women entered the workforce in ever larger numbers in the '60s and '70s, corporate culture didn't flex. When women with families left work each night, they were headed to another full-time job, what a sociologist termed a "second shift."

Rather than try to make the workforce more accommodating to the majority of workers--male and female--who had children and focus on the needs of "parents," the focus turned to women as if they were a special-interest group. The result? A social revolution without the required institutional or societal support, leaving women in a traditional world filled with modern expectations.

Sheila O'Brien believes the only way institutional change will occur is if women stop thinking that it's their problem to fix. "The argument is always, Who else is going to push back. I say, 'Why is it up to women to change the system?' I tell women, 'Go to a place where's there's a reflection of who you are--be it values, outlook, gender--where you don't have to spend energy earning your place at the table every day.'"

She recalls working in management recruitment at Amoco in the U.S. After eight years, she expressed a desire to join management. "My boss called me in and said, 'I hear you want to be a manager.' And I thought, 'Wow, what a great company--a week after I say I want to be a manager, he has called me in to promote me.'" Instead, he told her, "That's not going to happen. You're not a man, you're not American and you're not an engineer. You will be much happier if you readjust your sights." She realized he was doing her a favour. "A day later I went back and said, 'I have readjusted my sights. I'm leaving.'" Neil French's views, distasteful though many found them, similarly did us a favour by voicing a widely held view, albeit an extreme version. "It seems obvious now," says Nancy Vonk, the woman who's on-line posting initiated the French imbroglio, "that we can't take this shit and expect to see any change."

Defining women

Every generation has a hero, a person who triumphs in the face of adversity.

For women in business, these are five who mattered. --Steve Brearton

Destiny's child

Birthright remained one of the few paths to the corner suite for women in the 1960s. And so it was for Jeannine Guillevin Wood, who went from housewife to president of a Quebec electrical distributor, FX Guillevin & Fils, following her husband's death in 1965. By the time she sold the company in 1995, revenues had risen from $1.5 million to more than $500 million--a 3,300% increase. When she was appointed chair of Laurentian Bank of Canada in 1997, she became the first woman to head a major bank in Canada.

In her words "When my husband died, everybody tried to buy the company for nothing, so I decided to give it a try."

--35 years after becoming president of the company her husband's family founded in 1906 Guillevin Wood reflects on her determination to carry on.

Book smart

Anna Porter was among the first wave of successful Canadian businesswomen to choose her career path--rather than have it thrust upon her--and climb to the top. She began her career in publishing selling textbooks, and by 1978 she had out-worked and out-hustled everyone to become editor-in-chief and vice-president at McClelland & Stewart. A decade later, Porter, with her 12-hour workdays and impeccable business contacts, would be part owner of Key Porter Books, Doubleday Canada and Seal Books--and the most powerful person in her field.

In her words "It's my guess that if people would just stop all this politeness. . .more business would get accomplished and faster."

--In 1978, Porter pens a (sort of) tongue-in-cheek opinion piece for The Globe and Mail decrying courtesy as being much too time-consuming

Power suited

Margaret Witte, the uncompromising former CEO of Royal Oak Mines Inc., decided it was easiest to get to the top by owning the firm. Beginning in 1986, she built Royal Oak into a player in Canada's gold mining industry, wringing unlikely profits from unpromising mines. But it was her take-no-prisoners approach that turned heads. Within weeks of taking over the Pamour Group of mining companies in 1990, Witte fired 100 of the 800 staffers. Her labour practices led one B.C. union leader to say, "I don't think. . .[we]want that kind of an employer here." In her words "You tell me what benefit there is to shareholders to having glass panes in your window with gold flecks in them."

--In the midst of a takeover attempt of Lac Minerals Ltd.

in 1994, Witte warns that, if successful, she will sell their corporate jet, close their Toronto office and fire execs

Lone ranger

In 1993, the Financial Post identified seven women who held one of the top three jobs at Canada's largest corporations. After removing those who were government appointees, had started their firms or had family ties, only three women in the country had succeeded in climbing the corporate ladder. One of them, president of Cott beverages, was Heather Reisman. Her appointment at Cott in 1992 seemed to show that barriers to promotion would fall once capable, educated women entered the workplace.

In her words "It's unfortunate for someone who has been in business for 25 years that the immediate reaction of some constituencies still is, 'Well, she must have slept her way there.'"

--Heather Reisman's response to critics in 2001, after Onex Corp.

acquired Chapters

Sibling rival

Denied the opportunity afforded her brothers--namely, a job at the company her father founded--she didn't get bitter, she got even. Martha Billes taught school and worked in research and development at Lever Bros. Ltd., and was well into her 30s before she was offered a directorship in 1980. Today, in the wake of a 10-year battle with her siblings, she controls 61% of the voting stock in Canadian Tire Corp. Though she knows her sex prevented her from assuming an early role at her family's company, she argues against what she calls "mandated equality." In her words "For me it was both a victory and a sadness. My brothers had always been considered by everyone as heirs apparent simply because they were male."

--Billes, after she took control of Canadian Tire

AN INSIDER'S JOKE

Over the past several months, this joke has been making the rounds on Bay Street

A sign in the bank lobby reads: Please note that this bank is installing new drive-through teller machines enabling customers to withdraw cash without leaving their vehicles. After months of careful research, MALE & FEMALE procedures have been developed for using this facility. Customers are requested to follow the appropriate steps for your gender when accessing your accounts.

male procedure

1. Drive up to the cash machine

2. Roll down your car window

3. Insert card into machine and enter PIN

4. Enter amount of cash required and withdraw

5. Retrieve card, cash and receipt

6. Roll up window

7. Drive off

female procedure

1. Drive up to cash machine

2. Put vehicle into reverse and back up the required amount to align car window with the machine

3. Set parking brake and roll down window

4. Find handbag and remove all contents onto passenger seat to locate card

5. Tell person on cellphone you will call them back and hang up

6. Attempt to insert card into machine

7. Open car door to allow easier access to machine due to its excessive distance from the car

8. Insert card

9. Reinsert card the right way

10. Dig through handbag to find diary with your PIN written on the inside back page

11. Enter PIN

12. Press cancel and re-enter correct PIN

13. Enter amount of cash required

14. Check makeup in rear-view mirror

15. Retrieve cash and receipt

16. Empty handbag again to locate wallet and place cash inside

17. Write debit amount in chequebook and place receipt in back of it

18. Recheck makeup

19. Drive forward one-half metre

20. Reverse back to cash machine

21. Retrieve card

22. Re-empty handbag, locate cardholder and place card into the slot provided

23. Give dirty look to irate male driver waiting behind you

24. Restart stalled engine and pull off

25. Redial person on cellphone

26. Drive for two to three kilometres

27. Release parking brake

IF HE WERE A SHE

The oil and gas sector has one of the worst records for promoting women into executive positions.

Take a look at the career of Rick George, one of the industry's most respected executives.

How would his career, and life, have played out if he were, well, a woman? --Steve Brearton

Rick George was appointed president and chief executive officer of Suncor Inc. on Oct. 15, 1991. Originally from Brush, Colorado, George holds a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University, a law degree from the University of Houston Law School, and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School Program for Management Development. Prior to joining U.S.-based Sun Co.--where he spent 10 years in a variety of senior management positions--he worked for Texaco for six years. He is married to Julie George (née White) and has three children. Among his pastimes are fly-fishing and golf.

Of the country's top 500 companies, only 19 were led by women in 2004

9% of oil execs in 2002 were women. According to University of Calgary business professor Julie Rowney, the oil sector maintains a "chilly environment for women"

In a 2004 study conducted by researchers at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, one-third of the women professionals surveyed had no children and a further third had only a single child. "These professional women are making a conscious decision to limit family size," says Linda Duxbury, co-author of the study

Women university students begin to leave business programs--such as finance--as early as the third year of undergraduate studies, according to Queen's University associate professor Carol McKeen

18% of female managers delayed marriage to further their careers, according to a 2005 global study on work and family--double the number of men

"Golf is the sport of business, and if women expect to exist and thrive in that environment, they've got to be able to play. I've had women come to me and say they have been offered partnerships or vice-presidencies conditional on their learning golf"--Golf pro Bruce Domoney, former director of Toronto's Bay Street Golf Academy

WHERE THE GIRLS ARE (N'T)*

Are

Credit unions: 27.5

Life and health insurance: 24.6

Publishing and printing: 24.5

Property and casualty insurance: 23.2

Diversified financial services: 21.6

Specialty retailers: 21.1

Aren't

Motor vehicles and parts: 4.5

Steel production: 4.8

Oil and gas field services: 4.8

Gold mining: 5.6

Paper and forest products: 6.8

*Percentages represent the number of women executives in a given industry

19: NUMBER OF WOMEN IN 2004 WHO LED CANADA'S TOP 500 COMPANIES.

35: PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN ENROLLED IN THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO'S MBA PROGRAM IN 1982

35: PERCENTAGE OF WOMEN ENROLLED IN THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO'S MBA PROGRAM IN 2002

75: RANK OF NANCY SOUTHERN, CEO OF ATCO LTD., THE SOLE WOMAN AMONG THE 100 BEST-PAID EXECUTIVES IN CANADA

22: PERCENTAGE OF EXECUTIVE POSITIONS FILLED BY WOMEN IN THE NEW BRUNSWICK, THE PROVINCE WITH THE BEST RECORD FOR GENDER PARITY IN THE UPPER ECHELONS OF BUSINESS

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