Progress for Women in Management Has Flatlined
Ottawa Citizen, September 6, 2011
Time was supposed to cure the under-representation of Canadian women in senior management, but even the most patient person must despair at the pace of change to date.
At present rates, it will take about 150 years before women and men are equally likely to reach middle management. And a century and a half is an eyeblink compared with the eternity it would take to achieve this benchmark in senior management.
At the top levels of business and government, women are not making up any ground.
The numbers speak for themselves. Of 82,000 senior management positions in Canada in 2009, men held 56,000 and women only 26,000; yet, women comprise almost half of Canada's workforce.
The Conference Board of Canada's analysis of Statistics Canada data shows the proportion of women in senior management has flatlined. In 2009, men were twice as likely as women to be senior managers in Canada than women—a pattern that has changed very little over the past 22 years. The same trend can be found at the middle management level—the most common stepping stone to executive positions. Men have consistently been 1.5 times more likely than women to hold middle management posts since 1987.
Nor do the numbers support the commonly held view that women are more likely to move ahead in the public sector. The Conference Board's analysis shows that the pattern is consistent across sectors.
Now that the rousing early days of feminism are over, perhaps we have become complacent about the success of women in senior management. The relatively few women who rise to the C-suite often attract substantial media attention, which may create a false sense that barriers to women's advancement are a thing of the past.
They are not.
Why should we care? Organizations that create inclusive work environments and support their female employees are more innovative and profitable. A 2004 Catalyst study indicated that firms with the highest proportion of women in senior management had a 35.1-per-cent higher return on equity and 34-percent higher total return to shareholders than those with the lowest proportion of women. Conference Board research has shown that the presence of women on corporate boards aligns with the success of organizations.
Why are more women not advancing to middle and senior management?
First, educational choices are frequently mentioned as a factor. Men are more likely than women to study technical disciplines that propel them into management positions.
Second, personal choice is undoubtedly a reason—women undeniably face more pressure to balance family life with demanding jobs. They may not seek opportunities requiring travel and risk that could lead to advancement, or may reject offers of senior posts.
Third, and in my view most important, is the matter of culture. In workplaces where the leadership is male-dominated, it may be more comfortable for men to be hired and promoted. And, much as we might like to say that discrimination is no longer an issue, some workplaces retain an inhospitable culture (including gender stereotypes and occasionally outright harassment) that can limit the advancement of women.
It has long been fashionable to describe the obstacles to women's advancement as the glass ceiling, but a more appropriate metaphor may be that of a labyrinth, with many twists and turns that women must navigate in the course of their careers.
For those who are skeptical about the possibility of change, there are Canadian companies that have successfully bolstered their female contingent in senior management. Through case studies, the Conference Board has identified nine practices that work for successful organizations, including mentoring, coaching and job-rotation programs—all backed by executive-level support with strong communications and more inclusive recruitment strategies.
Faster change will not happen by itself.
Leaders who understand the importance of this issue must show they care and must measure the performance of their organizations. What gets inspected gets respected.
As Canadians, we live in a global economy where the quality of our workforce is the primary basis for competitiveness.
We also live in a country that is quickly moving from perennially high unemployment to chronic shortages of skilled labour. Why would we choose to under-utilize the talent of a major portion of our population?
Anne Golden is president and Chief Executive Officer of the Conference Board of Canada. The Conference Board's report is Women in Senior Management? Where Are They?