Employers lack strategies to develop female leaders: Survey

Canada behind other countries in offering targeted programs
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/12/2011

A majority of Canadian employers do not have a strategy to develop female leaders, according to a survey by Mercer.

Eighty-two per cent of 290 survey respondents across Canada — including human resources, talent management and diversity leaders from a variety of industries — said they do not have a clear strategy or philosophy for the development of women into leadership roles.

“The Canadian perspective around diversity has tended to be quite strong,” said Lynn Stoudt, a principal at Mercer’s human capital consulting business in Toronto. “When we got the results of the survey, we thought there would have been a stronger presence in terms of women’s leadership and the role of women’s leadership in organizations.”

The Women’s Leadership Development Survey also surveyed professionals in Asia, the United States, the Middle East and Africa. Canada ranked last for having a strategy in place for developing female leaders.

“Perhaps (Canadian employers) don’t see women’s leadership as a separate initiative; they really see it as part of their overarching diversity and inclusion initiatives,” said Stoudt. “However, it still means there’s work to be done that relates to women’s leadership roles.”

More than one-half (53 per cent) of the respondents said their organization provides no or minimal support for female leadership development. It’s really important for employers to focus on developing female leaders and there is a good business case for doing so, said Anne Plasterer, executive director of investor relations at Newalta in Calgary.

“Studies show organizations are much stronger when they have diverse leadership with women,” she said . “If you’re not looking at that and not developing it, then you’re missing out on a huge talent pool. It makes good strategic, long-term sense for an organization.”

At Newalta, an industrial recycling recovery company with 2,000 employees across North America, 15 senior-level women are developing a strategy to foster the development of female leaders within their organization, said Plasterer.

“The industry, in general, tends to be male-dominated so it fosters the perception that it’s difficult for women to advance into senior leadership positions,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that wasn’t the perception… and ensure women in the organization have the opportunities they need to be able to get ahead.”

A Women in Leadership group at Newalta was implemented in 2009 and is divided into four sub-committees:

• mentoring and coaching

• education and professional development

• best practices review and barrier identification

• recruitment and retention.

Each committee is responsible for analyzing the workforce and coming up with a plan to improve within their specific area, said Plasterer.

Nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of Canadian organizations do not offer any programs or activities to help develop women leaders, and only two per cent plan to institute such programs in the future, found the survey.

Initiatives to develop female leaders should be a part of an overarching talent management system and come from the executive team, said Stoudt. A solid strategy should allow women to be exposed to different lines of business around the organization through a number of cross-divisional programs, she said.

“It’s not just putting in place an opportunity for women to have lunch together once a year, it’s really helping develop business skills across the organization,” said Stoudt. “And, obviously, the organization is going to benefit from enhanced skill sets.”

One effective way to develop female leaders is by offering flexible work arrangements, found Mercer. But Canadian organizations are less likely to offer flexible work arrangements (60 per cent) than organizations in the U.S. and Asia (69 per cent each).

Flexible scheduling is only beneficial if women can still advance at the organization, said Colleen Hanycz, a principal at Brescia University College in London, Ont. For example, in some Canadian law firms, an individual can reduce her workload but then she can’t become a partner, she said.

“In order for flexible arrangements to be meaningful to women aspiring to leadership, they can’t remove the ability to be rewarded and promoted,” said Hanycz. “It’s not just accommodating work-life balance but making sure, through those accommodations, you can also continue to aspire to leadership.”

Canadian companies ranked last when it came to providing coaching for female leaders, with 37 per cent offering a program, compared to 42 per cent in Africa, 45 per cent in Asia and 51 per cent in the U.S. Coaching can take the form of a mentorship program that provides young women with role models at their own organization, said Hanycz.

“The senior woman has a chance to support (a younger one) and talk about aspirations and what her own pathway was,” she said. “It works so well for women because we are very relational. We can sit down and talk and listen and build relationships with someone we would aspire to follow.”

If Canadian employers don’t start implementing strategies to develop female leaders, the individuals will go to other organizations that can offer them the growth, development and support they need, said Stoudt.

“If organizations don’t have programs in place that allow female employees to aspire to leadership, they’re not going to be able to compete,” said Hanycz. “It seems employers beyond the boundaries of Canada have figured this out and, perhaps, Canadian employers are being left behind.”

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