It’s hard to climb the ladder in high heels

I was shocked to read an article earlier this year pointing out that more large companies in the U.S. were run by men named John than by the opposite sex.

It left me wondering if the figures here in Canada would be any better. So our company did some research and found that there were as many CEOs named Michael in Canada’s 100 largest companies in 2014 as there were female CEOs.

Perhaps becoming a CEO of a big company in Canada is tough to achieve if you’re a woman. It must be easier for women to attain high ranks in management, just not the top spot, right?

To help get a more complete picture of female representation in the workplace we took a look at how the top 100 Canadian companies (by revenue) disclose gender representation in their public reports. In addition to websites, annual reports and management circulars, we looked at company sustainability reports, since gender equity is often cited as a key sustainability indicator.

We found that 69 of the top 100 companies disclosed some type of gender statistics. Some of these companies reported on female representation in senior management or as executive officers, some only on total employees, and some reported on all three.

For the companies that did report, women represented 34 per cent of total employees. Women in senior management averaged 23 per cent, while women in executive officer roles comprised only 16 per cent. A number of companies had zero female executive officers, including Barrick Gold, CP Rail and Rogers. Since roughly two-thirds of the top 100 companies reported these statistics, the complete numbers might tell a different story. Unfortunately, that story would likely be even worse, since leaders tend to be more transparent than laggards.

The best companies for gender equity were banks and financial service providers, maintaining more than 60 per cent representation of women among all employees. Of the largest 100 Canadian companies, the highest percentage of female employees was found at Desjardins Group, with 75 per cent. National Bank of Canada had the highest percentage of women in senior management roles, at 47 per cent.

It’s not surprising that companies in the mining sector, traditionally perceived as a male-dominated industry, performed poorly. Potash Corp reported the second lowest overall female workforce (eight per cent), while Teck Resources was second lowest for females in senior management (six per cent). Potash and Teck are often championed as sustainability leaders in their respective industries.

With the equitable treatment of employees viewed as a basic tenet of sustainability, it was disappointing to find such poor performance among well-known sustainability leaders in this area.

Following the announcement of the 2015 Global 100 list of the most sustainable companies in the world, Elaine Cohen, an expert in corporate sustainability, determined that the 10 companies topping the list have women comprising just 11 per cent of their executive committees.

Is there an explanation for all of these low numbers? One often-cited reason is that many women stay at home to raise children. Yet women still comprised 47 per cent of the Canadian workforce in 2014. It would be nice to see senior management representation coming close to reflecting this figure.

Most heads of human resources departments will claim that their company does not discriminate based on gender, and that they only hire and promote the best and the brightest. This does not explain why the best and the brightest seem to be overwhelmingly male. The meritocracy clearly is not working, unless we buy the retrograde notion that women are generally less qualified.

Quotas are widely despised, so companies are pursuing other solutions to right the balance. Several of the Canadian companies we reviewed noted they have women’s networks, along with mentoring and leadership programs. BMO has set quantitative targets to help increase the share of women in senior leadership and board positions.

In 2014, seven provinces and two territories adopted expanded disclosure requirements for listed companies to report their approach for adding more women to their board and to senior management.

We can only hope that the bright light of disclosure leads to significant organizational change.


Mark Brownlie is Chief Executive of Responsibility Matters Inc., a Calgary-based advisory firm helping companies and non-profits with sustainability strategies and communications

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