From Saturday's Globe and Mail, Published on Saturday, Jan. 09, 2010 12:00AM EST, Last updated on Monday, Jan. 11, 2010 7:43AM EST
It's hard not to feel wistful in 2010 when recalling the excitement of the early 1970s, when feminism was becoming mainstream, women were demanding greater equality, and many young people believed they were building a new world without the limits that had constrained many of their mothers and grandmothers.
In many respects, that 40-year-old optimism has been borne out. Women have flooded into universities, poured into the work force and have won critical battles in areas of non-discriminatory treatment and equal pay. But in other respects, women have good reason to be disappointed. While they have made great strides in four decades, they still remain a small minority in the narrower world of power and authority in society today.
Many women now in their sixties say this power gap is the greatest unfulfilled promise of the early feminist era. And they have rightly concluded it is a failing that Canada can no longer ignore, or complacently expect to correct itself.
In the business sector, women make up 47 per cent of Canada's work force, but fill just 17 per cent of corporate officer positions in Canada's 500 largest organizations, according to a 2009 analysis by the consulting group Catalyst. Those numbers are highest at Crown corporations (with 26 per cent female officers) and lowest at publicly traded companies (where 14 per cent of corporate officers are women). Women constitute 13 per cent of board directors in the same group of 500 companies.
In law, banking, academia and politics, the numbers are equally weak for the top tiers of workers in the most senior "power jobs."
In the House of Commons, for example, 22 per cent of MPs are women, up just marginally from the previous record of 21 per cent, set back in 1993. The three main political parties are led by men, and all of Canada's 10 provincial premiers are men, although the Premier of Nunavut, Eva Aariak, is a woman.
In capital markets - jobs at brokerage firms - women are still a small minority of the overall work force, and hold just 10 per cent of jobs at the managing director level or higher, based on Catalyst data from Canada's six largest financial institutions. In academia, one-quarter of deans at Canada's English-speaking universities were women, based on 2008 data - a quarter of them heading nursing and education faculties. And women account for 18 per cent of partners at law firms in Ontario, according to the Law Society of Upper Canada.
This is not to say that women have been unsuccessful in these professions. They have swelled the ranks of lawyers, doctors and small business entrepreneurs in Canada. But a significant proportion are opting to work in small firms where they can be their own bosses and carve out the flexibility they want. And whatever job satisfaction that brings, it nonetheless means a minority of women are in the running for the power jobs that ultimately wield the greatest sway over society and the economy.
Certainly some women - just like some men - don't pursue power jobs because they demand huge time commitments that come at the expense of their families. Others are not attracted to the cut and thrust of leadership, or simply don't want the burden of responsibility that it brings.
But that only explains a part of the huge gender imbalance at the top. There also remains a long-standing prejudice that woman aren't as capable of leadership as men - that they are too emotional, or their commitment is too divided between family and career, or that they lack the strength to make tough decisions.
Many senior leaders today are men, and have what psychologists call a natural selection bias toward people like themselves: typically younger men who remind them of themselves. The Canadian businesswoman Stella Thompson recently observed that the higher up people get in life, the more they seem to choose what is familiar and comfortable. It's not malicious or overt, she says, but a natural trait to gravitate toward people you can bond with most quickly because they require less "adaptation."
Others also argue informal networking still often favours men, whether it's a mutual interest in sports or an easier bonding over drinks at the bar after work. And as those working to boost the number of women on corporate boards report, personal networking remains the single most important factor in winning an appointment to a large corporate board. Senior corporate leaders still prefer "safe bets" who move in the same circles.
There is, however, reason for optimism. There have been improvements in women's numbers in most professions. And to the credit of many industry groups and employers, numerous projects have been launched to help advance women in accounting, law, capital markets and politics and on boards of directors.
But one single reform can trump all those incremental efforts. That happens when leaders - CEOs, board chairmen, political party leaders and others - personally commit themselves to hiring and promoting women. One CEO's dedicated efforts to compel change can do as much good as a raft of other initiatives with only lacklustre commitment behind them. Indeed, many senior women credit having a great CEO at a pivotal moment in their careers for getting them onto the elite path to the top.
Leaders can start by creating targets for their organizations - even voluntary ones - and by reiterating to staff as often as possible that they matter. Managers throughout an organization can be asked to make sure that women's names are included on lists of candidates for promotions. And executives can even tie an element of compensation or bonuses for managers to their success at boosting diversification.
These ideas will seem old-school, modest or even unnecessary at the most enlightened organizations, where women comprise a large proportion of management. But the statistics show these companies are still a minority, and others are clearly making no effort to consider diversification in their top ranks.
Women have come a long way in four decades, but the final "power" frontier is as important to conquer as all the others that have come before. Those who lead must take the responsibility to make change happen. They must adopt the issue as a personal challenge.