Despite a commitment to advancing women, many employers in Canada and the United States are lacking the clear goals, measurements and accountability needed to drive progress, according to a new report.
The Canada-U.S. Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders released its fifth and final pillar report in October.
Too few North American companies are capitalizing on the opportunities presented by gender diversity, according to Advancing Women as Leaders in the Private Sector.
“We see a major disconnect between commitment and action,” said Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture North America, co-chair of the council and co-author of the report. “The time to act is now.”
The report aims to enact systematic change on behalf of working women, said Tina Lee, CEO of T&T Supermarkets in Toronto, and co-author of the report.
“We know the important role women can play in today’s workforce, but also that there needs to be a business objective and plan to support their growth,” she said.
“There’s a long way to go… I still feel like there is room to get better.”
“Gender diversity is clearly associated with better financial performance, and what’s interesting is companies still don’t have the same plans in place to achieve this balance, as they would any other strategy to increase the organization’s performance.”
The 10-women council was created last February in a partnership between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump, with a mission to drive women’s participation, leadership and success in the workforce.
The council has provided important recommendations on the work still left to do, said Trudeau.
“To create real opportunities for women business leaders, we need to make gender diversity in leadership a priority,” he said. “All of us benefit when women have the tools and resources they need to participate at the highest levels of our business and economy.”
Under his leadership, Canada will continue to champion gender equality, said Trudeau, citing Budget 2018 as an example.
“Women’s leadership is key to tackling the problems we face today,” he said. “By identifying clear goals and taking concrete action, we can eliminate the barriers that hold women back.”
Advancing women leaders
The council’s final report includes insights gleaned from a survey of 400 HR professionals from Canada and the U.S.
Thirty-six per cent of Canadians surveyed indicated their company has a strategy to advance women to senior leadership roles, and yet 48 per cent do not have accurate data on the percentage of women at the management level. Additionally, only 39 per cent of Canadian companies have accurate data on gender pay differences.
Companies with fewer than 500 workers are more effective than larger companies at advancing women at the manager level, and also have more committed CEOs, said Lee.
“Not enough leaders are treating gender diversity as a business priority,” she said. “An important part of this approach is for boards to require the CEO and management team to have a plan to advance women.”
The report provides a road map for business leaders to begin walking the talk, identifying five strategic elements to achieve gender diversity in leadership, said Lee.
Strategies include: making gender diversity a business priority and leadership commitment; capturing data and measuring progress; holding leaders accountable; setting targets; and leveraging research to create action plans.
“There is no silver bullet,” she said. “It’s quite a cohesive group of programs that needs to be put in place into organizations.”
“It starts with leadership commitment. It’s about metrics and finding out where we are and where we want to be — implementing the right action plan — and then, of course, cultivating the corporate culture to allow gender equality to survive and thrive.”
Low commitment levels to gender equality have strong ramifications for corporate Canada, said Janice McDonald, founder of the Beacon Agency, a consulting agency in Ottawa.
To achieve true change, female professionals require a senior leadership “champion” pushing their cause, she said.
The gap in gender equality is real, said McDonald. And while progressive companies are making commitments, others continue to have “leaky” talent pipelines and can’t seem to pinpoint why.
“It’s so critical for organizations to create a culture that is a place where high-potential people want to be there,” she said. “And that includes, obviously, women, so you have to have that intention.”
It is important for young female professionals to foresee pathways for career advancement through role models or senior mentors, said McDonald.
“It’s vital,” she said. “Women need to be mentored by male leaders as well. It’s so important to be able to hear that different perspective, and see and understand all that goes with that.”
But those in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) roles are working in a “very male-dominated arena,” and effects of the #MeToo movement have left many men apprehensive to enter a mentoring relationship, according to Leigh Mitchell, president and founder of the Women in Biz Network in Toronto.
“When these companies are so dominated by men, and men are afraid to mentor women to rise up in their leadership capabilities and progress on in the organization… it presents a challenge for women,” she said.
Many are now seeking those opportunities outside of their organization, said Mitchell.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of changes in the next couple of years,” she said. “The whole (#MeToo) movement has really brought to light how women aren’t feeling supported.”
For many organizations, “the light’s gone off,” said Mitchell, and it’s prompting them to act.
Advice for HR
While there have been some early tangible results stemming from the council’s work — including support from the federal government — there’s plenty of work still to be done, said Lee.
“The conversation certainly has to keep going because there’s a long journey ahead.”
Companies need to make this a business priority, and HR leaders need to commit to apply pressure on the C-suite to ensure changes are made, she said.
“The majority of management positions are still held by men. If we really want to move the dial, then senior male leaders need to treat it as a business priority.”
HR should strive to ensure their organization is a “compassionate workplace” — supporting workers in areas such as chronic illness, flexible work policies and diverse leadership, said Mitchell.
Employee assistance programming meant to help transition women back into the workforce following a maternity leave is an example of this, as is including employees away on leave in social functions, she said.
Auditing your organization is a solid starting point on the path towards gender equality, according to McDonald.
“Who’s in your organization? Does it look like Canada? In particular, when you think about women, where are they and what are their opportunities to advance in your organization?”
With a global talent crunch looming, HR would be wise to create a culture where workers want to be involved, she said.
“Smart companies have already figured this out and they’re being very intentional,” said McDonald.
“They’re setting those clear goals and saying, ‘We want to be a place where we’re going to keep all of this amazing talent.’”
“It’s going to be increasingly difficult to attract and retain amazing people. And so having a strategy to ensure that women want to be — and stay — in your company is vitally important.”