Progress slow, incremental for women in business

More women are climbing up Canada’s corporate ladders but the progress is very slow, according to a new study.

Women held 14 per cent of corporate officer positions in Canada’s 500 biggest corporations in 2002, a two-per-cent increase since 1999, according to the Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners of Canada.

Women are making only “slow” and “incremental” headway into Canada’s boardroom because too few organizations are taking action to eliminate systemic biases, said Susan Black, vice-president of Catalyst Canada. “Those companies that choose to create a business environment where women can bring critical skills and expertise to the leadership team are the smart and successful companies of the future.”

She said some people still believe the so-called “pipeline” explanation for the small number of women in executive positions: the problem of exclusion was fundamentally corrected years ago and it just takes time for women to move through the pipeline from lower levels up to the senior ranks. “That is a complete and total fallacy; it’s a huge myth,” she said. This is still a systemic problem and organizations can’t just wait for the problem to correct itself, she added. They need to actively intervene to remove the biases from the system. “When people talk about the pipeline what it tells you is that they don’t grasp the full set of issues.”

One of the big reasons women are only slowly making it into corporate executive positions is a lack of support from higher up in the organization, said Black. “(Women) tell us they don’t have the same access to mentoring that men do.”

Most people who make it to the upper levels in business have had mentors who have been instrumental in their success. “But people tend to mentor people who look like them so there has been less of a tendency (for men) to reach down into an organization and pull up a woman.”

Organizations need to introduce some kind of accountability framework to ensure women are not being blocked from senior positions. They should be looking at turnover and promotions, said Black. How many women are on the high-potential list and how many are being developed? Organizations need to be asking these questions, targets for improvement need to be set and people need to be held accountable.

“I’m not talking about quotas,” said Black. “A quota is mandatory; a target is something you shoot for. If you are running any business you have targets. If you don’t make it, then you don’t make it, but you have to explain why.”

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