Despite increases in the number of women working over the past couple of decades, the depiction of women in corporate annual reports shows they are not strong organizational insiders and have less power than men, according to a new study.
When analyzing photos of women and men in the 2003 corporate annual reports of organizations on the TSX100 index, women were younger, more likely to be smiling and less likely to be dressed professionally, found The Portrayal of Women in Canadian Corporate Annual Reports.
“Women still tend to be seen more as outsiders, they are not the powerful players. They are not shown in positions of power, they’re not the ones who are talking. They are more likely to be shown as customers rather than employees,” said Merridee Bujaki, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Ottawa and co-author of the study.
“Twenty, 25 years on, we’re still seeing that same message that many of the roles women are playing are somewhat subordinate roles.”
Photographs in corporate annual reports tell a story of what it’s like to work in an organization, said Bujaki. The people depicted are, or represent, the principal actors in corporate activities.
“It’s important to look at how women are depicted because, to a large extent, it reflects what the reality is, or what the companies want us to think the reality is, for women,” said Bujaki.
Which means candidates who are researching a potential employer may use these reports to gain a sense of what it would be like to work at the organization and if it’s an environment that welcomes and promotes women, she said.
“It’s interesting to see what the companies are saying through the choice of their photographs. It also may deter some individuals from going to work for that firm or they may see something that attracts them,” said Bujaki.
Scotiabank ensures its annual reports, along with all of the bank’s corporate documents, reflect the bank’s philosophy of diversity, said Anne DeRabbie, director of media communications at Scotiabank.
For example, on the cover of its 2010 annual report, there are images of six people, three of them are men and three are women. All of them are wearing business attire, all are smiling and all appear to be about the same age.
“The photos in our report reflect the reality that our organization offers rewarding career opportunities for women, and that we have many dynamic women employees who contribute greatly to our business success,” said DeRabbie.
The diversity on the bank’s board and among its executives is reflected in the annual report. There is a photo array of the 22-member executive management team, which includes eight women. There are also photos of all 14 board members, three of whom are women.
Initially, Bujaki and her co-author, Bruce McConomy at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., wanted to compare the proportion of women in photos to the proportion of women actually employed to see if the images were an accurate representation. But only a few of the organizations shared those details, said Bujaki.
The organizations that shared the number of female employees tended to be banks and other federally regulated organizations that fall under federal employment equity legislation. Some organizations refused to share the numbers while others said they didn’t know the figures.
The latter is concerning because if an organization doesn’t know whether or not there are fewer women in the organization, or that they’re at lower levels than men, it can’t take steps to improve, said Bujaki.
Of the 1,705 photos of people in the annual reports, 72 per cent were of men only, 14 per cent were of women only and 12 per cent were of men and women together.
Because data about the proportion of women in the organizations wasn’t available, the authors looked at industry averages and found the photos significantly under-represented the percentage of women working in eight of the nine industry classifications.
Unfortunately, the portrayal of women in less senior roles is fairly accurate, as just 14 per cent of members of board of directors for Financial Post 500 companies were women in 2009, according to a census conducted by Catalyst, a New York-based research and advisory organization that promotes women in business.
And in 2008, women’s representation as corporate officers at Financial Post 500 companies was just 16.9 per cent, found another Catalyst survey.
Those organizations with fewer women are losing out. Fortune 500 organizations with the highest representation of women corporate officers had a 35.1-per-cent higher return on equity than companies with the lowest representation of women corporate officers, found a 2004 Catalyst survey.
And companies that have more photos of women in their reports, and thus portray a more inclusive organization, have a higher return of equity than organizations with fewer photos of women, found The Portrayal of Women in Canadian Corporate Annual Reports.
However, organizations with only one female board member performed worse than organizations with no female board members, said Bujaki.
One reason for this result may be that, as the only woman, the sole female board member might not feel comfortable and able to share her unique perspective, said Bujaki.
“If we’ve got people with different ideas, how do we make sure we capture those and don’t discourage them along the way?” she said.
The simplest answer is to increase the representation of people from different groups (women, visible minorities, people with disabilities) on the board, she said.
In the future, Bujaki said she would like to see more organizations making conscious decisions about the photos they use in annual reports and what the photos say about the work environment.
“I’d like them to think about what the overt and latent messages are when they choose these photographs,” she said.
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