Business Opinion Women Who Lead

Moving the Dial on Women’s Representation in Canadian Executive Suites

Gender Equality- Economy
Illustration: Theo Lamar

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report recently announced that economic gender parity won’t happen for more than 200 years. Most Canadians would be skeptical of such a dour outlook for equality in our country, yet the current state of our corporate executive suites would certainly support the case that we have a long way to go. 

Today women represent a mere 4% of CEOs and 17% of executive teams of Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) listed companies. Despite attempts by regulators and governments to put pressure on companies to make progress on gender diversity in corporate leadership, the numbers in the C-suite remain low.

Representation in the executive suite and boardrooms of Canada can be seen as the only  instrument to measure progress on gender parity. I would argue it is the most transparent and telling barometer to watch. The people in those seats shape business environments for Canadians; making decisions that impact the short and long term economy. 

If women do not have an influential voice at these key decision-making tables, we do not have equality in the economy.

Why should companies prioritize moving the dial on women’s representation in leadership?

Credit Suisse and McKinsey have published extensively on the correlation between gender diversity in leadership and financial returns. 

For the skeptics out there who point out that correlation is not causality, I would argue that portfolio managers make investment decisions every day based on correlation. Quite simply, the business case has been made.  

Why is progress so slow?

In time with the celebrations of International Women’s Day, no doubt many passionate speeches about the importance of gender diversity in our leadership teams have been delivered across the country. While these speeches can be incredibly inspiring, the question we need to ask is what happens when the applause stops? If we are really going to drive progress on increasing gender diversity in the leadership of corporate Canada, the real work needs to happen 365 days a year. Every year. 

What works?

Targets. Companies need to make commitments to drive progress on improving the representation of women in leadership roles.

Only 3% of public companies have gender diversity targets for executive officer roles. Business strategy is grounded and judged on metrics and targets. Goals for diversifying the workforce should be held to the same standard. Without setting, measuring and reporting on defined terms of progress, anecdotes and tokenisms replace true ambition to achieve parity in leadership. 

This does not mean populating seats with “unqualified” candidates. 

The companies who are making progress on increasing gender diversity in their leadership teams are taking a data driven approach. They track gender diversity targets at every level of seniority. When they don’t hit their targets they take a critical approach to analyzing why they missed the mark and how to make sure they hit it next year. When they hit the mark, they move the goal higher. Just like every other performance metric for business. 

UN Women issued their theme for International Women’s Day 2020 – “I Am Generation Equality”. This struck a chord with me given that when I graduated from university 25 years ago, I thought I was part of “generation equality”. Turns out I was a few generations too early. The question for Canadians – Which generation will we choose to be the “Generation of Equality”? 

Let’s not ask the next generation of female graduates to be patient – it is time to pick a bold and ambitious goal for achieving gender diversity in the leadership of the Canadian economy. 

Jennifer Reynolds is the President and CEO of Toronto Finance International.